Sri Lanka’s defense minister said seven suspects were arrested Sunday following a series of eight bombings that targeted hotels and churches during Easter services throughout the country, killing over 200 people and wounding hundreds more in what he called a terror attack by religious extremists.
The first six blasts were triggered almost simultaneously on Sunday morning in the predominantly Buddhist south Asian country. Three high-end hotels and one church were hit in the capital, Colombo; another church was bombed in the city of Negumbo, just north of the capital; and a third church was bombed in Batticalao, a city on the country’s eastern coast.
Hours later, a seventh blast was set off near a hotel in Dehawali, just south of Colombo, killing at least two people, and moments after that another explosive was detonated by a suicide bomber in a northern neighborhood of the capital.
A source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suicide bomber detonated his payload when officers entered a house in a northern suburb of the capital Colombo to carry out a search. Three officers were killed in the blast, which leveled the top floor of the building.
In total, 207 people were reported killed in the bombings throughout the day, and over 600 were said to be injured to varying degrees.
After the second wave of bombings, Sri Lanka’s defense ministry ordered a nighttime curfew across the country, and authorities “temporarily” blocked access to social media websites and applications “in order to prevent incorrect and wrong information being spread,” Udaya R. Seneviratne, secretary to the country’s president said in a statement.
The curfew went into effect at 6 p.m. local time and was due to end at 6 a.m. Monday.
Sri Lankan Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the attacks as a terrorist incident and blamed religious extremists.
Wijewardena did not release any additional information about the arrests of the seven suspects.
So far no group has taken responsibility for the attacks.
The country’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said he feared the violence could trigger instability in the country and its economy.
Sri Lanka’s most senior Catholic figure, Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on the government to find the attackers behind the deadly blasts and “punish them mercilessly because only animals can behave like that.”
The sites hit in the attacks were all heavily frequented by tourists, and at least 35 foreign nationals were killed in the explosions, police told AFP. A hospital source said Americans, British and Dutch citizens were among the dead. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said there were no Israeli casualties in the attacks.
Leaders from around the world voiced their support for Sri Lanka after the attacks.
Local security officials said at least two of the attacks appeared to have been carried out by suicide bombers.
Ten days before the attacks, Sri Lanka’s police chief issued a nationwide alert warning top officers that suicide bombers planned to target “prominent churches,” according to the warning seen by AFP.
“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,” said the alert, which was sent by police chief Pujuth Jayasundara to senior police officials.
The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that came to notice last year when it was linked to the vandalization of Buddhist statues.
The island nation of Sri Lanka, just off the coast from India, endured a brutal and bloody civil war from 1983 to 2009, when the government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgent group, also known as the Tamil Tigers.
Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.