Six things you need to know about Sri Lanka’s bombings

Coordinated bombings rock churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing at least 290 people.

Sri Lanka bombings
A relative of a victim of the explosion at St Anthony's Shrine reacts at the police mortuary in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

A series of eight devastating bomb blasts ripped through several high-end hotels and three churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka on Sunday, killing nearly 300 people and wounding 500 others.

It was the first major attack on the Indian Ocean island since the end of a civil war 10 years ago. 

There were no claims of responsibility. A Sri Lankan minister on Monday accused a little-known local Muslim organisation of responsibility and suggested it had foreign support. 

Here’s what you need to know:

What happened?

The first blast was reported at St Anthony’s Shrine, an historic Roman Catholic church in Colombo, just as church services began around 8:45am local time (03:15 GMT). Much of the church roof was blown off by the explosion, with roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor along with pools of blood.

The other two occurred at St Sebastian Catholic Church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo where footage showed people dragging the wounded out of blood-splattered pews, and at the Protestant Zion Church in the east-coast town of Batticaloa.

Soon after, police confirmed blasts at three high-end hotels in the capital – the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La, and the Kingsbury. 

Hours later, a blast was reported at a guesthouse near the national zoo in Colombo’s Dehiwala district. 

The eighth explosion took place at a house in Colombo. Police and media said three officers were killed.

Harsha de Silva, Sri Lanka’s minister of economic reforms and public distribution, said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St Anthony’s, where he described “horrible scenes”.

“I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding there were “many casualties including foreigners”.

Who were the victims?

The blasts hit the churches when they were full of worshippers who gathered for Easter services. A detailed breakdown of casualties in the eight blasts was not immediately available. 

Nearly all victims were Sri Lankans. Officials said the dead also included dozens of foreigners.

Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said they included three Indians, one Portuguese national, two Turkish nationals, three British nationals and two holding US and British nationalities.

A Dutch national and a Chinese national were also reported to be among the victims. 

Sri Lankan security personnel walk through debris following an explosion in St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of the capital, Colombo [AFP]
Sri Lankan security personnel walk through debris following an explosion in St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital, Colombo [AFP]

Who did it?

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene described the blasts as a “terrorist attack” by religious groups. 

At least 23 suspects are now in custody. 

Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne on Monday blamed a little-known local Muslim group called National Thowheed Jamath. 

Senaratne also hinted at a possible role of an international network in the Easter Sunday attacks, but gave no specifics.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told reporters “so far the names that have come up are local”, but investigators will look into whether the suspected attackers had any “overseas links”. 

He also acknowledged that “information was there” about possible attacks. “While this goes on we must also look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” he said.

How did Sri Lanka react?

In a Twitter post, Wickremesinghe said: “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong.”

President Maithripala Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and the military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.

In addition to the curfew, the military was deployed and security was stepped up at Colombo’s international airport.

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of St Anthony's Shrine [Dinuka Liyanawatte/ Reuters]
Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of St Anthony’s Shrine [Dinuka Liyanawatte/ Reuters]

What are world leaders saying?

Countries around the world condemned the attacks, and Pope Francis added an appeal at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing to address the attacks.

Speaking from the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica Francis said: “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.”

US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences on the “horrible terrorist attacks”, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow remains a “reliable partner of Sri Lanka in the fight against international terrorism”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the bombings “an assault on all of humanity”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “The acts of violence against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka are truly appalling, and my deepest sympathies go out to all of those affected at this tragic time.”

Relatives of a blast victim grieve outside a morgue in Colombo, Sri Lanka [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]
Relatives of a blast victim grieve outside a morgue in Colombo, Sri Lanka [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, called the attacks “blind terrorism” and offered solidarity to Sri Lanka’s people.

New Zealand, Germany, the United Kingdom, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates also denounced the attacks.

What is Sri Lanka’s religious and ethnic mix?

The attacks on Sunday recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 36-year civil war, which claimed up to 100,000 lives.

The island nation has a population of nearly 23 million, of which nearly three-quarters are ethnic Sinhalese. The Tamils, the second-largest ethnic group, make up more than 15 percent of the population and live mainly in the north and northeast of the country.

Muslims account for 10 percent of the population, and Christians about six percent.

The mistreatment of Tamils following independence from the British helped nurture the growth of armed separatists, leading to nearly three decades of armed conflict. The government defeated Tamil separatists in 2009. 

After the civil war ended, a religious divide quickly took hold, with hardline Buddhist monks rallying Sri Lankans against Muslims.

In 2018, anti-Muslim violence flared across the hills of central Sri Lanka, fed by rumours spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists. A state of emergency was briefly declared in the wake of those attacks.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies