More arrests as Sri Lanka hunts for attackers behind deadly spate of bombings

More arrests as Sri Lanka hunts for attackers behind deadly spate of bombings

Police say 13 detained, safe house and van used by suspects found hours after blasts leave over 200 dead and at least 450 wounded

A Sri Lankan police commando enters a house suspected to be a hideout of militants following a shoot out in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
A Sri Lankan police commando enters a house suspected to be a hideout of militants following a shoot out in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Police in Sri Lanka said they discovered a safe house used by attackers in a series of deadly bombings that rocked churches and hotels in or near Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday, as officials arrested suspects and hunted for those responsible for the attacks.

Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists. He said most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

Over 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in eight separate bomb blasts centered around Colombo — the deadliest violence the South Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

The explosions at three churches and three hotels collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshipers and hotel guests. People were seen carrying victims 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.”

Police and forensic officials inspect a blast spot at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)

He added, “There was blood everywhere.”

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said 13 suspects were arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

In a statement, Gunasekara also said police found a van they suspect was used to transport the suspects into Colombo and a safe house used by the attackers.

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

Bodies of blast victims are removed from St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019. (AP /Chamila Karunarathne)

Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists, and Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners from a variety of countries were recovered. The US said “several” American were among the dead, while Britain and China said they, too, lost citizens.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said no Israelis were hurt in the attacks.

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.

Wickremesinghe urged people to “hold our unity as Sri Lankans,” and pledged to “wipe out this menace once and for all.”

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks during a press conference in Colombo, on April 21, 2019. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and blocked Facebook and other social media, saying it needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension.

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.”

US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences about the “horrible terrorist attacks,” and Pope Francis, in his Easter address at the Vatican, spoke of his “affectionate closeness with the Christian community, attacked while it was at prayer.”

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.

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority, 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.

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 between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims have recently been running high.

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.

“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.

Pakistani Christians light candles to pay tribute to Sri Lankan blasts victims in Karachi on April 21, 2019. ( RIZWAN TABASSUM / AFP)

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.

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms, Harsha de Silva, described “horrible scenes” at St. Anthony’s.

Sri Lankan security personnel walk past dead bodies covered with blankets amid blast debris at St. Anthony’s Shrine following an explosion in the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

“I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners.”

Witness N. A. Sumanapala was near the church when the blast happened.

“I ran inside to help. The priest came out and he was covered in blood,” he told AFP.

“It was a river of blood.”

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.

Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) personnel are pictured outside a house during a raid — after a suicide blast killed police officers searching the property — in the capital Colombo on April 21, 2019, following a series of deadly blasts in churches and hotels. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

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.

Relatives of a victim of a church bombing grieve outside a morgue in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019. More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more injured from eight blasts that rocked churches and hotels around the country. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo)

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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