24 arrested as Sri Lanka attack toll hits 290

Reuters . Colombo | Update:

A relative of a victim of the explosion at St. Anthony`s Shrine, Kochchikade church, reacts at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019. Photo: Reuters

The death toll from bomb blasts that ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka rose dramatically Monday to 290 -- including dozens of foreigners -- as police announced new arrests over the country's worst attacks for more than a decade.

More than 500 people were injured in the Easter Sunday assault that saw suicide bombers hit three high-end hotels popular with foreign tourists and three churches, unleashing carnage in Colombo and beyond.

Two additional blasts were triggered as security forces carried out raids searching for suspects.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but police said Monday 24 people had been arrested. The government is wary of stirring ethnic tensions, and the country remained on edge as a home-made bomb was defused at Colombo airport late Sunday and massive security deployed.

A nationwide curfew imposed shortly after the blasts was lifted early Monday, but the government has ordered a two-day holiday and schools and the Colombo stock exchange were closed. Still, a steady stream of people and vehicles were seen on the streets of the capital and Negombo.

The attacks were the worst ever carried out against Sri Lanka's small Christian minority, who make up just seven per cent of the 21 million population.

At least 37 foreigners were among the dead, the foreign ministry said.

The government said three Indians, three Britons, two from Turkey and one Portuguese had died, as well as two people holding both British and US passports.

"Additionally, while nine foreign nationals are reported missing, there are 25 unidentified bodies believed to be of foreigners," the foreign ministry said.

Japan's foreign ministry said one of its nationals was among the dead.

- 'Bodies everywhere' -
The churches targeted included St Sebastian's in Negombo, north of the capital, which was surrounded by security forces on Monday.

Dozens of people were killed at the church, including friends of 16-year-old Primasha Fernando, who was at her home nearby when the suicide bomber struck.

"When I got to the church there were people crying and screaming," she told AFP.

"I saw bodies everywhere," she added in tears. "I saw parents carrying their dead babies. I saw dead people who had hair but didn't have faces anymore."

"Hands and legs were separate from bodies. There was blood everywhere too. The smell was so strong it made me feel sick."

The church's roof was largely blown out and pews splintered. The floor was strewn with roof tiles and shards of glass.

Outside, 24-year-old Denver Malewama and his mother Sunita handed out tea to security personnel.

"We want to say thank you because they protect us," he said.

- Government warned -
Some Sri Lankans asked how the attacks could have happened after it emerged that the government had been warned about possible blasts.

Sri Lanka's police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers on 11 April, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) planned to hit "prominent churches".

The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues.

Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said an investigation would look into "why adequate precautions were not taken".

The government said investigators would look into whether the attackers had "overseas links".

Ethnic and religious violence has plagued Sri Lanka for decades, with a 37-year conflict with Tamil rebels followed by an upswing in recent years in clashes between the Buddhist majority and Muslims.

Dilip Fernando, who could not get into St Sebastian's because the church was already packed when he arrived, said the Christian community would not be intimidated.

"We are not afraid. We won't let the terrorists win, no way," the 66-year-old told AFP outside the devastated building.

- Memories of civil war -
For many, the blasts brought back painful memories of Sri Lanka's civil war, when bomb attacks were a frequent occurrence.

"The string of blasts brings back memories of the time when we were afraid to go in buses or trains because of parcel bombs," said Malathi Wickrama, a street sweeper in Colombo.

In total, three churches in Colombo, Negombo and the east-coast town of Batticaloa were attacked, along with three luxury hotels in the capital.

A manager at the Cinnamon Grand, near the prime minister's official residence in Colombo, said a suicide bomber blew himself up at a breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant.

"He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast," the manager said.

Two further blasts happened as police staged raids looking for suspects. At least three police officers were killed in one raid.

The attacks drew global condemnation, including from US President Donald Trump and the pope.

Wickremesinghe urged people to "hold our unity as Sri Lankans" and pledged to "wipe out this menace once and for all".

The archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, described the attackers as "animals" and called on authorities to "punish them mercilessly".

Embassies in Colombo warned foreign nationals to stay inside, while there were chaotic scenes at Colombo airport as travellers formed huge lines at the only taxi counter that was open.

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