Israel offers aid to Sri Lanka in call after devastating bombings

Unclear if Colombo accepts aid as Netanyahu’s national security adviser speaks to Sri Lankan president’s secretary following string of deadly attacks at churches and hotels

Sri Lankan security personnel walk next to dead bodies on the floor amid blast debris at St. Anthony's Shrine, following an explosion in the church in Kochchikade in Colombo, on April 21, 2019. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA/ AFP)
Sri Lankan security personnel walk next to dead bodies on the floor amid blast debris at St. Anthony's Shrine, following an explosion in the church in Kochchikade in Colombo, on April 21, 2019. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA/ AFP)

The top security aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with his Sri Lankan counterpart and offered Israeli aid, on Sunday, after a string of bombing attacks Sunday left over 200 hundred dead and hundreds more injured.

Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council, spoke to Udaya Seneviratne, secretary to Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena, according to Netanyahu’s office.

Ben-Shabbat offered condolences and Israeli humanitarian aid in the wake of the attacks.

There was no immediate indication from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office or Sri Lankan authorities whether they would be accepting Israel’s offer.

Netanyahu earlier expressed, “deep shock over the murderous rampages against innocent civilians in Sri Lanka,” in a tweet.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

“Israel is ready to aid the authorities in Sri Lanka at this difficult hour. The entire world must unite in the fight against the scourge of terrorism,” he wrote.

Israel was among the countries to supply Sri Lanka with arms during its 26-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority that sought independence from the Buddhist-majority country.

During the war, the Tigers and other rebels carried out a multitude of bombings. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described Sunday’s bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists and said seven suspects were arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. He said most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said at least 207 people were killed and 450 wounded.

A view of St. Sebastian’s Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019, hit by one of eight blasts that rocked churches and hotels in and just outside of Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday. (AP/Chamila Karunarathne)

The explosions at three churches and three hotels collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshipers and hotel guests. People were seen carrying the wounded out of blood-spattered pews. Witnesses described powerful blasts, followed by scenes of smoke, blood, broken glass, alarms going off, and victims screaming.

“People were being dragged out,” said Bhanuka Harischandra, of Colombo, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company, who was going to the city’s Shangri-La Hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.”

He added, “There was blood everywhere.”

The three hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners were recovered and included people from Britain, the US, India, Portugal and Turkey. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said several American citizens were among the dead.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people, and vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible. The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

A Sri Lankan airforce helicopter flies over a house suspected to be a hideout of militants, following a shoot-out in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019, where eight blasts rocked churches and hotels in and just outside of Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday. (AP /Eranga Jayawardena)

The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on Sri Lanka’s government to “mercilessly” punish those responsible “because only animals can behave like that.”

Sri Lanka, situated off the southern tip of India, is about 70 percent Buddhist, with the rest of the population Muslim, Hindu, or Christian. While there have been scattered incidents of anti-Christian harassment in recent years, there has been nothing on the scale of what happened Sunday.

There is also no history of violent Muslim militants in Sri Lanka. However, tensions have been running high more recently between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.

Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.

Sri Lankan security personnel stand outside the church premises with gathered security personnel, following a blast at the St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

“I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence,” Francis said.

Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning in Colombo at St. Anthony’s Shrine — a Catholic church — and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels. After a lull of a few hours, two more explosions occurred at St. Sebastian Catholic church in Negombo, a mostly Catholic town north of Colombo, and at the Protestant Zion church in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

Three police officers were killed while conducting a search at a suspected safe house in Dematagoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, Wijewardena said.

A Sri Lankan police officer inspects a blast spot at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019. (AP/Chamila Karunarathne)

Local TV showed the Shangri-La’s second-floor restaurant was gutted, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned in the blackened space. From outside the police cordon, three bodies could be seen covered in white sheets.

Foreign tourists hurriedly took to their cellphones to text family and loved ones around the world that they were okay.

One group was on a 15-day tour of the tropical island country, seeing such sites as Buddhist monuments, tea plantations, jungle eco-lodges, and sandy beaches. The tour started last week in Negombo, where one of the blasts took place, and was supposed to end in Colombo, but that may be dropped from the itinerary.

“Having experienced the open and welcoming Sri Lanka during my last week traveling through the country, I had a sense that the country was turning the corner, and, in particular, those in the tourism industry were hopeful for the future,” said Peter Kelson, a technology manager from Sydney.

“Apart from the tragedy of the immediate victims of the bombings, I worry that these terrible events will set the country back significantly,” he said.

Sri Lankan security personnel walk past debris next to a dead body slumped over a bench, following an explosion in St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, on April 21, 2019. (STR / AFP)

Tour group leader Suminda Dodangoda was exasperated at the political problems still convulsing his country.

“We are still at war” more than three decades later, he told the tourists.

Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, ending a civil war that took over 100,000 lives, with both sides accused of grave human rights violations.

Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was “a lot of tension” after the bombings, but added: “We’ve been through these kinds of situations before.”

He said Sri Lankans are “an amazing bunch” and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.

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