Sri Lanka blasts: More than 200 dead in bombings across country

3 months 2 days 7 hours ago Sunday, April 21 2019 Apr 21, 2019 Sunday, April 21, 2019 1:18:00 PM CDT April 21, 2019 in News
By: Sugam Pokharel, Euan McKirdy and Tara John: CNN
Courtesy: Ishara S. Kodikara/Getty Images

(CNN) -- At least 207 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in a series of bomb blasts that hit luxury hotels and churches across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, leaving the entire country in a state of lock-down.

The first wave of attacks struck at the heart of the country's minority Christian community during busy Easter services at churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa on Sunday morning.

Additional blasts ripped through three high-end hotels, the Shangri La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury, all in capital city Colombo.

The violence punctured a decade of relative peace in the country following the end of its civil war in 2009 -- where attacks were common during the 25-year struggle. Sri Lanka has since turned itself into a popular tourist destination, winning the title of best place in the world to visit in 2019 by travel guide publisher Lonely Planet.

"These are certainly acts of terror," the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the UK Manisha Gunasekera told CNN on Sunday, suggesting that suicide bombings had been "carried out."

"This is an attack against the whole of Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka is [a] multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural country and the whole country comes together in celebration of Easter Sunday."

In a statement, the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo said that the hotel's Table One cafe was hit just after 9 a.m local time. The hotel is popular with foreign tourists and the country's business community.

On Sunday afternoon, the seventh and eighth blast occurred at a hotel in front of the Dehiwala Zoo in Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia and at a private house in Mahawila Gardens, in Dematagoda, during a raid in connection with the attacks, officials said.

Here's the full list of blast sites reported so far:

  • St. Anthony's Shrine, Colombo
  • St. Sebastian's Church, Negombo
  • Zion Church, Batticaloa
  • Cinnamon Grand, Colombo
  • Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo
  • The Kingsbury Hotel, Colombo
  • Near Dehiwala Zoo in Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia
  • A house in Mahawila Gardens, Dematagoda

Sri Lanka's Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution Harsha de Silva said on Twitter that "close to 30 foreigners" were killed on Sunday. In the capital, Colombo, at least 20 foreigners were among the dead, according to hospital Director General Anil Jasinghe. Hospitals have opened their doors to scores of victims.

Three Indians, two Turkish nationals, and two Chinese citizens were identified as deceased among the hundreds who died, according to Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry in a statement seen by CNN.

Five British citizens, including two dual US-UK nationals, were also killed in the bombings, the statement said.

The UK Foreign Office has not yet confirmed the deaths, but British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, James Dauris, said some British citizens were also "caught in the blast."

Seven people are under arrest following the attacks, De Silva wrote after an emergency meeting with defense officials.

There was however no immediate claim of responsibility. Sri Lankan security officials said police and security services immediately rushed to all affected areas and sealed off the churches and hotels.

Social media sites, including Facebook and Instagram, were blocked by the government while investigations were taking place.

Easter events

The explosions blew out the tiled roofs of churches and hotel windows, killing Sunday worshipers and hotel guests in the process. Images and footage seen by CNN showed bloodied pews, broken glass, and plumes of smoke.

Father Edmond Tillekeratne, social communications director for the Archdiocese of Colombo, spoke to CNN from St. Sebastian's Church, one of the locations targeted.

He said that the blast took place after Easter Mass, and there were about 30 bodies lying in the area of the church.

Tillekeratne said three priests had been celebrating the mass at the time of the blast. Two of them were badly injured by flying glass and debris, and one was only lightly injured because he was behind the altar.

He estimated that more than a thousand people had come to the church for Easter Sunday "because it is a special day." Many came from villages, he added.

He described the ground as covered in rubble and shattered glass.

"You can see pieces of flesh thrown all over the walls and on the sanctuary and even outside of the church," he added.

Curfew imposed

Police in Sri Lanka imposed an island-wide curfew starting Sunday at 6 p.m. local (8:30 a.m. ET Sunday) until the morning.

The country's authorities convened an emergency meeting involving the heads of the army, air force and navy, according to Sri Lanka's economic reforms minister, Harsha de Silva.

He said on Twitter that all emergency steps had been taken and that the group would issue a statement on the blasts.

Three police officers were killed during a house raid in Mahawila Gardens -- the site of the eight explosion.

"The Colombo crime division... went to a house at [Mahawila Gardens] in Dematagoda, in relation to information received with regard to these hotels explosions," Police Spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara, said at a press conference.

"When crime division officials started questioning the people in the house, two explosions occurred, One sub inspector and two constables of police have been killed and one constable was taken to the national hospital with wounds," he added.

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the blasts on Twitter, calling on Sri Lankans to "remain united and strong."

President Maithripala Sirisena also spoke out following the attacks. "I have given instructions to take very stern action against the persons who are responsible for this conspiracy," he said.

Leave has been canceled for all police in Sri Lanka.

"Horrible scenes, I saw many body parts strewn all over," de Silva said after visiting the Kochchikade church and Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. "We took multiple casualties to hospital. Hopefully saved many lives."

De Silva said rescue operations were underway, adding that emergency crews were operating in "full force."

Christians targeted

Sri Lanka's minority Christian community appeared to be the main target of Sunday's attack. Christianity is a minority religion in Sri Lanka, accounting for less than 10% of the total population of 21.4 million.

According to census data, 70.2% of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist, 12% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim, and 7.4% Christian. It is estimated that 82% of Sri Lankan Christians are Roman Catholic.

Sunday's attacks risk upsetting the country's fragile post-war peace. Tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority led to a 25-year insurgency between the Tamil Tigers, classified by the US and others as a terrorist organization, and government forces.

More than 70,000 people died in the fighting, which ended when Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

In recent years, the country has witnessed a surge in ultra-nationalist Buddhism led by the Bodu Bala Sena, the country's most powerful Buddhist organization, which has pledged to defend the religion.

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