'It was 8:30 a.m., and it was busy. It was families'

Sri Lanka bomber waited in line at hotel buffet then unleashed devastation

Eyewitness describes suicide attack in a hotel restaurant in Colombo, which triggered ‘utter chaos’; over 200 people killed in Sunday blasts, 35 of them foreign nationals

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

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The suicide bomber waited patiently in a queue for the Easter Sunday breakfast buffet at Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Grand hotel before setting off explosives strapped to his back.

Carrying a plate, the man, who had registered at the hotel the night before as Mohamed Azzam Mohamed, was just about to be served when he set off his devastating strike in the packed restaurant, a manager at the Sri Lankan hotel said.

“There was utter chaos,” said the manager, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to speak for the company.

Two other hotels, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury, were hit at about the same time, along with three churches packed with worshipers attending Easter Sunday services.

Hours later, two more explosives were set off around the capital Colombo. One of them was triggered near a hotel in a suburb south of Colombo, killing two people, another was apparently set off by a suicide bomber looking to avoid capture in a safehouse in a northern neighborhood of the capital. Three police officers were killed in the blast.

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)

In total, over 200 people were killed in the attacks on Sunday, including 35 foreign nationals, according to Sri Lankan police.

Many of the 35 foreigners killed in the blasts were at the hotels, officials said.

The Taprobane restaurant at the hotel was having one of its busiest days of the year for the Easter holiday weekend.

“It was 8:30 a.m., and it was busy. It was families,” the manager told AFP.

“He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast,” he added. “One of our managers who was welcoming guests was among those killed instantly.”

The bomber also died. Parts of his body were found intact by police and taken away.

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)

Other hotel officials told how the bomber, a Sri Lankan, checked in giving an address that turned out to be false, saying he was in the city for business.

The blast at Colombo’s St. Anthony’s Shrine, a historic Catholic church, was so powerful that it blew out much of the roof, leaving roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor that was strewn with bodies.

Authorities have not said who staged the attacks. Sri Lankan Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena told reporters that seven suspects had been arrested following the bombings. 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.

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.”

‘Shock, grief and mourning’

“There was utter chaos, but we rushed all the injured to hospital in a very short time,” the Cinnamon Grand manager said. “About 20 people were seriously wounded and we sent them to the National Hospital.”

The hotel is close to the Sri Lankan prime minister’s official residence and Special Task Force commandos were quickly at the scene.

At the Shangri-La, witnesses said they heard two loud blasts and that staff reported some people had been killed. But details of the toll were not immediately given.

An AFP photographer saw extensive damage in the second floor restaurant at the hotel, with windows blown out and electrical wires hanging from the ceiling.

The Shangri-La said in a statement that the bomb hit at approximately 9:00 a.m. local time at its Table One restaurant.

“We are deeply saddened and shocked by the incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the casualties and those who have been affected,” it said.

“Our immediate priority is to look after the safety and wellbeing of all involved. A Shangri-La crisis management team has been activated to provide all necessary support.”

The Kingsbury is also one of Colombo’s most expensive hotels, positioned near the city’s World Trade Center.

The toll there was not known.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the hotel said: “On behalf of the entire Kingsbury team we share in the shock, grief and mourning of our entire nation in the aftermath of the recent attack.”

“Medical evacuation and treatment of the injured guests and employees were handled immediately.” The hotel said it had been “isolated” for further safety checks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed