Prime minister says government failed to take ‘adequate precautions’ despite being warned of potential church attacks.
A series of coordinated bombings struck churches and hotels on Easter Sunday killing 207 people in the worst attacks in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war 10 years ago.
At least 450 people were wounded after the island nation was hit by a total of eight explosions, police said, adding several of the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers.
Most of the victims were Sri Lankan and killed in three churches where worshippers attended Easter Sunday services. Three other bombings struck luxury hotels – the Cinnamon Grand, the Kingsbury and the Shangri-La – located in the heart of the capital Colombo, killing at least 35 foreigners.
Among the dead were Japanese, Dutch, Chinese, British, American and Portuguese tourists.
“People were being dragged out,” Bhanuka Harischandra of Colombo, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company who was at the Shangri-La Hotel for a meeting when it was bombed.
“People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode. There was blood everywhere.”
No immediate claim of responsibility was made for the carnage in a country that was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009, a time when bomb blasts in Colombo and elsewhere were common.
Yasmin Christina Rodrigo, 31, had returned home for a brief Easter holiday with her family. She was at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo to attend the morning worship when a bomb detonated.
“I was seated in one of the middle rows and could hear a sudden noise. I felt numb as small pieces of brick and soot covered my body… Suddenly there were loud screams and weeping. The hall was consumed by a burning smell, and people were screaming and scrambling out… I managed to get out of the pew, I saw a pile of people lying on the floor soaked in blood and soot,” Rodrigo told Al Jazeera.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the attacks saying it is “an attempt to make the country and its economy unstable”.
He held an emergency meeting with the country’s top military officials of the National Security Council and called for an emergency meeting of the nation’s parliament on Monday.
“I condemn these attacks which targeted religious places and some hotels. We all should join hands to protect law and order,” Wickremesinghe said.
Thirteen people were arrested in connection with the string of deadly blasts, police said.
“So far the names that have come up are local,” but investigators will look into whether the attackers had any “overseas links”, Wickremesinghe said.
The seventh blast occurred at a hotel near the national zoo in the capital, killing two people, police said, while the eighth hit the suburb of Orugodawatta, north of Colombo, when officers entered a residence to search it.
The explosion brought down the upper level of the home and killed three police officers, the police source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“During the 30 years of civil war we had lots of explosions in Colombo. We are used to the airport getting blown up and the central bank, things like that. But it’s been 10 years of peace and we got used to that. So that’s why it’s really surprising and shocking,” said Colombo resident Mangala Karunaratne.
Local Christian groups have said they faced increasing intimidation from some hardline Buddhist monks in recent years. Last year, there were clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, with some Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.
Sri Lanka’s most senior Catholic figure called on the government to find the attackers behind the deadly blasts.
“I would also like to ask the government to hold a very impartial strong inquiry and find out who is responsible behind this act and also to punish them mercilessly, because only animals can behave like that,” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, told reporters.
Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.
Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of about 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.
A hotel official at the Cinnamon Grand said a suicide bomber blew himself up at the facility’s restaurant. “He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast,” he said.
The series of attacks started with the bombing of St Anthony’s Shrine in the capital. Five other blasts followed within half an hour, including the bombings on St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, about 30km from the capital, and another in Batticaloa, 250km east of the capital.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the wounded were being evacuated while security forces cordoned off the areas and search operations were under way.
Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been blown almost entirely off in the blast.
The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood.
Several people could be seen covered in blood, some trying to help those with more serious wounds.
The Sri Lankan government declared a nationwide curfew with immediate effect, Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said.
Government officials also said major social media networks and messaging apps, including Facebook and WhatsApp, were blocked inside the country to prevent misinformation and rumours.
“This is only a temporary measure,” Udaya R Seneviratne, secretary to the president, said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Colombo, said the crisis appeared to be over by Sunday night.
“We’re hearing that Colombo national hospital is still receiving casualties brought in from the multiple locations.
“In terms of law enforcement, we’ve been hearing that all festivities have been cancelled, that security in and around the city has been tightened,” Fernandez said.
“It’s still very open-ended … it’s too early [to speculate who is responsible] but security in the capital and the airport has been stepped up following the attacks.”
Rajiva Wijesinha, a former member of the Sri Lankan parliament, told Al Jazeera the coordinated nature of the attacks shocked the country.
“It’s actually extremely chilling. We’ve never had anything of this sort before. Sri Lanka had a terrible time under Tamil Tiger terrorism for about 25 years and then there was a great sense of relief, which I am afraid the West has been fighting with us about, when we got rid of the Tiger terrorists,” Rajiva said.
“But the Tiger terrorists were never as well organised and never quite as brilliant in synchronisation and this is obviously something on a much larger scale, which is frankly quite terrifying,” he said.
“The range of these attacks and the concentration on the Christian churches and then the hotels as well suggest we are dealing with something really quite horrible.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Colombo, Ashwin Hemmathagama, a reporter with the Daily FT, said the attacks were a blow to the country’s tourism sector.
“At the moment police have cordoned off the areas and cautioned the public to remain vigilant. They have asked the public to stay indoors and avoid hasty decisions because investigations are under way,” Hemmathagama said.
“After the civil war ended, almost a decade ago, the tourism industry was picking up. Basically, everything was back to its current perspective, but unfortunately this kind of attack will definitely cripple the tourism sector.”
Additional reporting by Dilrukshi Handunnetti from Colombo