At least 207 people were killed and hundreds were injured in a series of bombing attacks on several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka throughout Easter Sunday, police and officials said. Sri Lanka’s defense minister said seven suspects have been arrested.
The first six blasts were triggered almost simultaneously on Sunday morning. Three high-end hotels and one church in the capital, Colombo, were hit, while two additional churches were targeted elsewhere in the country during Easter services, Sri Lankan police said.
Hours later, a seventh explosive was set off near a hotel in Dehawali, just south of Colombo, killing at least two people, and moments after that another bomb was detonated in a northern neighborhood of the capital, killing three, police said.
According to police, the eighth attack was a suicide bombing.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suicide bomber detonated his explosives 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.
After the second wave of attacks, Sri Lanka’s defense ministry ordered a night-time 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 sites hit in the bombings 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 Mnistry said no Israelis were among the victims.
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called the blasts “cowardly” and said the government was working to “contain the situation.”
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“I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong,” he wrote in a tweet.
Leaders from around the world voiced their support for Sri Lanka after the attacks.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Sri Lanka’s police chief issued a nationwide alert 10 days before the bomb attacks 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 top officers.
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 first blast ripped through St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.
Alex Agileson, who was in the vicinity, said buildings in the surrounding area shook with the blast.
An AFP photographer at the scene at St Anthony’s saw bodies lying on the floor, some draped with scarves and clothes.
Much of the church roof was blown out in the explosion, with roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor along with pools of blood.
At least 160 people injured in the St. Anthony’s blast had been admitted to the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official told AFP.
N. A. Sumanapala was at his shop 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.”
Another explosion was reported at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a Catholic-majority town north of Colombo. The church appealed for help on its Facebook page, and posted graphic photographs and videos from the scene.
“A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there,” the church wrote.
Photos from the St. Sebastian’s Church circulating on social media showed the roof had been almost blown off in the blast. The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood.
Gabriel, who declined to give his family name, told AFP his brother was at mass at the church when the explosion ripped through it.
“A piece of roof fell on his head, and he was bleeding heavily from his ear,” he said.
“We are all in shock. We don’t want the country to go back to that dark past where we had to live in fear of suicide blasts all the time.”
Several people could be seen covered in blood, with some trying to help those with more serious injuries.
A church in the town of Batticalao, in the east of the country, was also targeted in the attack, police said.
An official at the Batticaloa hospital told AFP more than 300 people had been admitted to hospitals with injuries following the blast there.
Blasts also gutted the upscale Kingsbury, Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo.
A manager at the Cinnamon Grand, near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, said a suicide bomber blew himself up at the hotel’s restaurant.
“He came up to the top of the line and set off the blast,” he told AFP.
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St Anthony’s, where he described “horrible scenes.”
“I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners.”
The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, described those behind the attacks as “animals” and called on the authorities to “punish them mercilessly.”
US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences on 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 shelter in place, and Sri Lankan Airlines told customers to arrive at the airport four hours ahead of flights because of ramped-up security in the wake of the attacks.
The island nation, 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.
There have been no attacks in Sri Lanka linked to foreign Islamist groups, despite local media reports that a Sri Lankan was killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group.
In January, Sri Lankan police seized a haul of explosives and detonators following the arrest of four men from a newly formed radical Muslim group.