Sri Lanka minister says local Islamist terror group carried out attacks
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Sri Lanka minister says local Islamist terror group carried out attacks

All seven suicide bombers identified as citizens and members of National Thowfeek Jamaath, which has suspected foreign links; death toll rises to 290

A statue is pictured next to shrapnel marks at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the building was hit as part of a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)
A statue is pictured next to shrapnel marks at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the building was hit as part of a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

The coordinated Easter Sunday bombings that ripped through Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels, killing more than 290 people, were carried out by seven suicide bombers from a domestic Islamist terror group named National Thowfeek Jamaath, a government official said Monday.

All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but authorities suspect foreign links, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at a news conference.

Earlier, Ariyananda Welianga, a government forensic crime investigator, said an analysis of the attackers’ body parts made clear that they were suicide bombers. He said most of the attacks were carried out by a single bomber, with two at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel.

The bombings, Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war ended a decade ago on the island nation, killed at least 290 people with more than 500 wounded, Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said Monday.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan police investigating the bombings are examining reports that intelligence agencies had warnings of possible attacks, officials said Monday.

Two government ministers have alluded to intelligence failures. Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando tweeted, “Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored.” He said his father had heard of the possibility of an attack as well and had warned him not to enter popular churches.

And Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said his ministry’s security officers had been warned by their division about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.

The police’s Criminal Investigation Department, which is handling the investigation into the blasts, will look into those reports, Gunasekara said.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the attacks could have been thwarted.

“We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?” he said.

Earlier, Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Wijewardena said most of the bombings were believed to have been suicide attacks.

While anti-Muslim bigotry has swept the island in recent years, fed by Buddhist nationalists, the island has no history of Islamist attacks. The country’s small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment in recent years.

The explosions — mostly in or around Colombo, the capital — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshipers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.

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 morgue worker in the town of Negombo, outside Colombo, where St. Sebastian’s Church was targeted, said many bodies were hard to identify because of the extent of the injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman in Negombo who declined to provide his last name, went with his family to St. Sebastian’s for Easter Mass. He said they all escaped the blast unscathed, but he remains haunted by images of bodies being taken from the sanctuary and tossed into a truck.

At the Shangri-La Hotel, a witness said “people were being dragged out” after the blast.

“There was blood everywhere,” said Bhanuka Harischandra a 24-year-old from Colombo and founder of a tech marketing company. He was heading to the hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.”

Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three bombed 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” Americans were among the dead, while Britain, India, China, Japan and Portugal said they, too, lost citizens.

The streets were largely deserted Monday morning, with most shops closed and a heavy deployment of soldiers and police. Stunned clergy and onlookers gathered at St. Anthony’s Shrine, looking past the soldiers to the stricken church.

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 Sri Lankan government initially lifted a curfew that had been imposed during the night but reinstated it Monday afternoon. Most social media remained blocked Monday after officials said they needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible.

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, when the Tamil Tigers, from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Sinhalese-dominated country. The Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, is about 70 percent Buddhist. In recent years, tensions have been running high 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 Special Task Force (STF) personnel are pictured outside a house during a raid — after a suicide blast had killed police searching the property — in the Orugodawatta area of the capital Colombo on April 21, 2019, following a series of blasts in churches and hotels. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning at the shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, as well as at two churches outside Colombo.

A few hours later, two more blasts occurred just outside Colombo, one at a guesthouse where two people were killed, the other near an overpass, Atapattu said.

Also, three police officers were killed during a search at a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.

Authorities said a large bomb had been found and defused late Sunday on an access road to the international airport.

Air Force Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne said Monday that authorities found a pipe bomb filled with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives. It was large enough to have caused damage to a 400-meter (400-yard) radius, he said.

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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