•More than 30 foreigners among the dead •Curfew clamped on entire country
•Social media sites blocked
COLOMBO: Shock and disbelief gripped Sri Lankans on Sunday morning as eight massive explosions targeted Easter ceremonies at three churches and three five-star hotels, killing over 200 people and leaving hundreds of others wounded.
At the time of writing, at least 207 people had been declared dead and the number of injured put at 450. Over 30 foreigners were believed to have died in the blasts, among them British, Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese and American citizens.
Some eyewitness accounts said the final death toll could be even greater, with many still missing and several bodies possibly buried under the debris. Also, several of the injured were said to have suffered life-threatening injuries.
Sounds of ambulance siren tore through the capital on a day which was supposed to be a festive occasion for the country’s Christian community. All leading hotels had organised special buffets and lunches to mark the day.
Curfew was declared after two more explosions took place in two Colombo suburbs, at about 2pm, which targeted a budget hotel close to the zoo and another at a housing complex.
However, it was not clear if one of the incidents that also involved a shootout with police was directly linked to the other blasts or those evading the law were trying to make an escape.
The government blocked access to social media and messaging sites, including Facebook and WhatsApp, to stop flow of “wrong or misleading information”. It was unclear when the curfew would be lifted.
Meanwhile, a common factor linking the church attacks was that they predominantly targeted Tamil Christians. The St Anthony’s Catholic church in Kochchikde, located in a conclave near the Colombo port, was among the first to be bombed, when a mass in the Tamil language was going on.
The St Sebastian church in Negombo came under attack soon afterwards. Negombo is a popular tourist destination about 35km from Colombo.
Also coming under attack was the Christian Zion church in Eastern Batticaloa, a district which is populated primarily by Tamils and Muslims.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Some documents showed that Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara had issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches”.
“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” the alert said. The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking late on Sunday, acknowledged “information was there” about possible attacks and that an investigation would look into “why adequate precautions were not taken”. Rucki Fernando, a Christian Sri Lankan, said: “We haven’t experienced anything like this in the last 10 years. There is a lot of fear, not just in the Christian community, but among everyone.”
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms, Harsha de Silva, described “horrible scenes” at St Anthony’s church. “I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners”. A manager at the Cinnamon Grand hotel, located near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, said a suicide bomber blew himself up at its restaurant. “He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast,” he said. Later in the afternoon, a suicide bomber killed three police officers as they raided a house in a northern suburb of the city. Wickremesinghe urged people to “hold our unity as Sri Lankans” and pledged to “wipe out this menace once and for all”.
The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, described the attackers as “animals” and called on authorities to “punish them mercilessly”. Embassies in Colombo warned their citizens to stay inside, and Sri Lankan Airlines told passengers to arrive at the airport four hours ahead of flights because of ramped-up security. Only around six per cent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, and the country is a patchwork of different religious and ethnic groups, dominated by Buddhist Sinhalese. Recent years have seen growing sectarian tensions, including accusations of hate crimes by extremist Buddhist monks against minority Muslims. There have been no attacks in Sri Lanka linked to foreign Islamist groups, but in January Sri Lankan police seized a haul of explosives and detonators following the arrest of four men from a newly formed radical Muslim group.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2019