Sri Lanka Blasts: 253 Dead, Hundreds Wounded on Easter Sunday

Among the dead are almost 40 foreigners including three Danish citizens, two Turkish citizens, three Britons and two individuals holding joint United States and British citizenship, as well as Indians and Portuguese

Sri Lankan hospital workers transport a body on a trolley at a hospital morgue following an explosion at a church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019.
AFP

Some 253 people were killed and about 500 more wounded in eight bomb blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels in or near Sri Lanka's capital 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 said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Wijewardena said most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

The explosions collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests. People were seen carrying the wounded out of blood-spattered pews. Witnesses described powerful explosions, followed by scenes of smoke, blood, broken glass, alarms going off and victims screaming in terror.

"People were being dragged out," 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."

The three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony's Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists. Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 39 foreigners were recovered. Three Danish citizens, two Turkish citizens, three Britons and two individuals holding joint United States and British citizenship were among those killed. Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry said also Indians and Portuguese were among the dead.

St. Sebastian's church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo posted pictures of destruction inside the church on its Facebook page, showing blood on pews and the floor, and requested help from the public. 

The Sri Lankan government declared a curfew with immediate effect, junior defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene said later Sunday.

"A curfew will be imposed until things settle down," he told reporters in Colombo. 

Government officials also said major social media networks and messaging apps, including Facebook and WhatsApp, have been blocked inside the country to prevent misinformation and rumors.

'Cruel violence': Leaders lament attack

Israel's Foreign Affairs Ministry said no Israeli casualties were reported.

St. Anthony's Shrine, ColomboGoggle Maps

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harshly condemned the attacks, stating Israel is willing to provide aid to Sri Lankan authorities.

"On behalf of Israeli citizens, I express profound shock over these murderous attacks against innocent civilians in Sri Lanka. Israel is prepared to assist the authorities in Sri Lanka at this difficult hour. The whole world must unite in the fight against the scourge of terror," Netanyahu tweeted.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin also condemned the attacks. He tweeted: "The attacks in Sri Lanka, including those at prayer celebrating Easter Sunday are a despicable crime. We are all children of God; an attack on one religion is an attack on us all."

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: "The United States offers heartfelt condolences to the great people of Sri Lanka. We stand ready to help!" An earlier tweet by Trump incorrectly states that the attacks killed "at least 138 million people."

Police and forensic officials inspect a blast spot at the Shangri-la hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019.
Eranga Jayawardena / AP

Pope Francis condemned the attack as "cruel violence," and said that he was close to the Christian community there. 

"I learned with sadness and pain of the news of the grave attacks, that precisely today, Easter, brought mourning and pain to churches and other places where people were gathered in Sri Lanka," Pope Francis told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square to hear his Easter Sunday "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message. 

"I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence," said Francis, who visited Sri Lanka in 2015. 

"I entrust to the Lord those who have tragically died and I pray for the wounded and for all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event," he said. 

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019.
Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

Indian Premier Narendra Modi also strongly condemned the multiple blasts, saying "there is no place for such barbarism in our region".

"India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka. My thoughts are with bereaved families and prayers with the injured," Modi said on Twitter.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people, and he vowed the government will "vest all necessary powers with the defense forces" to take action against those responsible for the massacre. The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

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."

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of the nation's 26-year civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from Sri Lanka, a 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 Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.
Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

Sri Lanka 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.