Easter bomb blasts kill more than 200 in Sri Lanka

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI AND KRISHAN FRAN­CIS

More than 200 peo­ple were killed and hun­dreds more wounded in nine bomb­ings that rocked churches, lux­ury ho­tels and other sites in Sri Lanka on Easter Sun­day – the dead­li­est vi­o­lence the South Asian is­land coun­try has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

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

The ex­plo­sions at three churches and three ho­tels – most of them in or around Colombo, the cap­i­tal – col­lapsed ceil­ings and blew out win­dows, killing wor­ship­pers and ho­tel guests in one scene af­ter an­other of smoke, blood, bro­ken glass, screams and wail­ing alarms. Victims were car­ried out of blood-spat­tered pews.

“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.”

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 U.S. said “sev­eral” Amer­i­can were among the dead, while Bri­tain, China, Ja­pan and Por­tu­gal said they, too, lost ci­ti­zens.

The Sri Lankan 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 in the coun­try of about 21 mil­lion peo­ple.

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

Police spokesman Ruwan Gu­nasekara said at least 207 peo­ple were killed and 450 wounded. He said police found a safe house and a van used by the at­tack­ers.

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 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.

“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 at the shrine and the Cin­na­mon Grand, Shangri-La and Kings­bury ho­tels in Colombo, as well as at two churches out­side Colombo, ac­cord­ing to a Sri Lankan mil­i­tary spokesman, Bri­gadier Sumith Ata­p­attu.

A few hours later, two more blasts oc­curred just out­side Colombo, one of them 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.

The Shangri-La’s sec­ond-floor restau­rant was gut­ted, with the ceil­ing and win­dows blown out. Loose wires hung down 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 that they were OK. Vis­i­tors from around the world come to Sri Lanka to see ele­phants, tea plan­ta­tions, an­cient Bud­dhist mon­u­ments and other sights.

“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 tourist 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.”

Lo­cals who work in Sri Lanka’s vi­tal tourism in­dus­try were shocked and up­set by the blood­shed.

“Af­ter so many years, we’ve started again,” said Gamini Fran­cis, 56, a long-time ho­tel worker. “A lot of peo­ple are go­ing to lose their jobs. 100% sure. It’s tragic. Crazy peo­ple killing in­no­cent peo­ple.”

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.

CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE AP

St. Se­bas­tian’s Church in Ne­gombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, was dam­aged by an ex­plo­sion Sun­day. A string of at­tacks on churches, lux­ury ho­tels and other sites was the worst vi­o­lence to hit the South Asian coun­try since its civil war ended a decade ago.

ERANGA JAYAWARDENA AP

Sri Lankan Army sol­diers se­cure the area around St. An­thony’s Shrine af­ter a blast Sun­day in Colombo, Sri Lanka. De­fense Min­is­ter Ruwan Wi­je­w­ar­dena de­scribed the bomb­ings as a ter­ror­ist at­tack by re­li­gious ex­trem­ists, and police said 13 sus­pects were ar­rested.

MO­HAM­MAD SA­J­JAD AP

A Chris­tian woman in Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, lights a can­dle at a vigil Sun­day for the for the victims of ex­plo­sions in churches and ho­tels in Sri Lanka. The gov­ern­ment im­posed a na­tion­wide cur­few and blocked so­cial me­dia.

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