By Dharisha Bastians, Jeffrey Gettleman and Kai Schultz
Coordinated bombings ripped across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, striking hotels and churches, killing more than 200 people, wounding hundreds and shattering the relative calm that the war-torn nation had enjoyed in recent years.
The targets were members of Sri Lanka’s small Roman Catholic minority attending Easter Mass and guests at high-end hotels popular with foreign tourists. By Sunday afternoon, soldiers had shut down roads across the country, and a jittery government had imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The government temporarily blocked major social media and messaging services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, to prevent the spread of misinformation online, according to the president’s secretary, Udaya Seneviratne.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks in Colombo, the capital; Negombo, a city about 20 miles north of Colombo; and the eastern city of Batticaloa.
At least 207 people were killed and at least 450 wounded, said Ruwan Gunasekera, a police spokesman. Ravinatha Aryasinha, the secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said 27 foreigners were among the dead. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, denouncing “these vile attacks,” said “several U.S. citizens were among those killed.”
Officials and news media reports said that American, British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese nationals were among the victims.
At a news briefing Sunday afternoon, Ruwan Wijewardan, Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense, said that seven suspects had been apprehended and that all of the Colombo attacks had been carried out by suicide bombers. The government has identified the attackers, he said, but he did not elaborate.
He said the attackers were believed to be part of a single group.
Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, suffered decades of civil war during which guerrillas from the Tamil ethnic group were among the first in the world to use suicide bombings as a common tactic. Since the war ended in 2009, there has been some political instability and sporadic attacks, but nothing on this scale.
“It has been 10 years since we last saw this kind of horror,” said Hemasiri Fernando, the secretary to the Ministry of Defense.
The explosions began around 8:45 a.m., and the deadliest appeared to be at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo. Pictures posted on social media showed blood and rubble as members of the congregation tended to wounded people strewn across pews. The other churches attacked were St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa.
There were also explosions Sunday morning at three hotels in the capital: the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury.
More explosions followed in the afternoon, all in Colombo. The first was at the Tropical Inn, a small hotel not far from the national zoo in the suburb of Dehiwala. Two people were killed in that blast, officials said.
There was also at least one explosion at a housing complex in another suburb, Dematagoda, where, Mr. Wijewardan said, three police officers were killed during an attempt to apprehend suspects.
The afternoon explosions added to the wave of grief, confusion and shock that quickly spread across the country. Ambulance sirens wailed across several cities. Blood-splattered church pews lay in splinters.
At St. Anthony’s Shrine, black smoke billowed out from the front doors and witnesses said many people had died inside.
“It was a river of blood,” said N. A. Sumanapala, a shopkeeper near the church who had run inside to help. “Ash was falling like snow,” he said. “I saw limbs and heads. There were children, too.”
The panic of the blasts quickly spread to other churches, which halted or canceled their Easter services.
“Our phones were on silent, but one guy got a text about the bomb blast,” said Ranil Thilkaratne, who was at a service in the Colombo suburb of Nugegoda. “Then he alerted the priest. We stopped the service and moved out.”
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, with Hindus the largest minority, about 12 percent, followed by Muslims at less than 10 percent. About 6 percent of the population is Catholic, according to government figures.
Pope Francis addressed the bombings on Sunday after celebrating Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square, expressing his “affectionate closeness to the Christian community, struck while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”
The country has struggled with sectarian divisions, including last year, when the government temporarily shut down Facebook and WhatsApp in an effort to curb anti-Muslim violence. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, warned the public not to believe false information circulating online about the bombings on Sunday.
A Facebook spokeswoman confirmed on Sunday that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, a photo-sharing service owned by the company, had all been temporarily blocked. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Courtesy:New York Times