Wednesday 22 May 2019

Five Britons among more than 200 killed in Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka

  • Almost 207 people killed in explosions
  • Four hotels and three churches targeted
  • 'I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people' - Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
  • Government declares curfew with immediate effect
  • Irish citizens who need consular assistance advised to contact embassy in New Delhi on +91-114-9403-200
  • 'Ireland strongly supports everyone's freedom of religion and belief' - Simon Coveney
Sri Lankan Army soldiers secure the area around a church after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka
(AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Sri Lankan Army soldiers secure the area around a church after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Priests walk into the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka Liyanawatte
Priests are seen inside the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Bharatha Mallawarachi, Krishan Francis, David Hughes and Alexander Britton

Five Britons are among more than 200 people killed in a series of bombings which ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said three Britons and two holding joint US and British nationalities were killed.

James Dauris, the UK's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, visited injured Britons in hospital and condemned the "senseless attack".

Six nearly simultaneous explosions at churches and hotels killed scores of people in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.

Hours later, there were further explosions in Dehiwala and Dematagoda on the outskirts of Colombo.

The authorities said 207 were killed and 450 injured in the attacks, most of which were being blamed on suspected suicide bombers.

No one has taken responsibility for the killings, but officials say seven suspects have been arrested.

The Easter attacks are the worst bloodshed Sri Lanka has seen since its brutal civil war ended a decade ago.

Mr Dauris said: "I've been speaking this afternoon with Brits in hospital who have been affected by today's senseless attacks.

"My team's and my thoughts go out to all those people who are suffering as a result of the deplorable violence Sri Lanka has witnessed this Easter Sunday."

Priests are seen inside the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka
REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Priests are seen inside the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Early in the afternoon, police reported there had been two more explosions. One was at a hotel near the national zoo in the Dehiwela area near Colombo.

A witness told local TV he saw some body parts, including a severed head, lying on the ground near the hotel.

The other explosion was in a house in Colombo, authorities said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney condemned the attacks and said that Ireland stands with those affected.

"I am shocked at the appalling attacks on innocent civilians this morning in Sri Lanka. No political or other cause can justify or excuse the bombing of people at worship or simply going about their daily lives.

"I express my sympathy to the families of those who have been killed and my support to those who have been injured," the Tanaiste said.

"On behalf of the government of Ireland I also express our solidarity with the people and government of Sri Lanka at this tremendously difficult time.

"Ireland strongly supports everyone's freedom of religion and belief.

"Attacks such as those in Sri Lanka today and in Christchurch and elsewhere are a challenge to us all to do everything that we can to defend that right. Places of worship must be places of peace, free from fear."

Christian groups say they have faced increasing intimidation from some extremist Buddhist monks in recent years. And last year, there were clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.

Pope Francis condemned attacks as "such cruel violence" and said he was close to the Christian community, hit while celebrating Easter.

"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.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called a national security council meeting at his home for later in the day.

"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," he said in a Tweet.

"Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation."

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

The military had been deployed, according to a military spokesman, and security stepped up at Colombo's international airport.

One of the explosions was at St. Anthony's Shrine, a Catholic Church in Kochcikade, Colombo, a tourist landmark.

St. Sebastian's 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 Department of Foreign Affairs said they are ready to provide consular assistance.

A DFA spokeswoman said: "The Department is aware of the situation in Sri Lanka and we are monitoring the situation closely.

"If you have concerns for Irish citizens in the region please contact the Department on 01 408 2000."

The Irish Embassy in India Tweeted: "The Embassy is aware of reports of explosions at numerous locations in #SriLanka this morning- if you require consular assistance please call Embassy New Delhi at +911149403200 #SriLankaBlasts @dfatravelwise

"You can also call our Honorary Consulate in Colombo on +94 (11) 258 7895 and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin on +35314082000."

President Michael D Higgins said that people's freedom to worship must be respected.

He said: "As President of Ireland I am sure that people in Ireland will have heard with great concern of the heavy loss of life that has happened at places of worship in Sri Lanka, at a time of religious significance.

"The right to the freedom of worship is a fundamental right.

"To the families of those who died and those who have been injured I send the sympathies and solidarity of the people of Ireland."

Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson, said that today's attacks are a reminder of people being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

He said: "While many of us have come to take for granted the voice of peace at Christmas and the voice of hope at Easter, we are reminded starkly and tragically today that this is not the case for Christians in many parts of the world.

"These Christians are our sisters and brothers. We stand in solidarity with them and they with us. Together we are one family of the resurrection. In so many countries worldwide our fellow-Christians find themselves a minority that is targeted and persecuted.

"The news this morning of bomb blasts at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka comes to us at a time we have come to refer to as The Easter Weekend. There is no tomorrow, no Bank Holiday Monday, for those killed in the multiple bomb blasts in Sri Lanka. There is nothing but devastation and fear and injury for these people, these communities and for Sri Lankan society."

British Prime Minister Theresa May called the tragic attacks "appalling."

Mrs May noted: "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.

"We must stand together to make sure that no one should ever have to practise their faith in fear."

European Council President Donald Tusk said: "A tragic Easter in Sri Lanka. My thoughts are with the families of those killed in the attacks on churches and hotels; and those still fighting for their lives."

Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organisations.

This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.

Out of Sri Lanka's total population of around 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.

In its 2018 report on Sri Lanka's human rights, the U.S. State Department noted that some Christian groups and churches reported they had been pressured to end worship meetings after authorities classified them as "unauthorized gatherings".

The report also said Buddhist monks regularly tried to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing unidentified sources.

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, told local TV that the public should remain calm and asked authorities to bring those responsible for the attacks before the law. He also requested the public donate blood for the injured.

Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam announced that all schools would be closed on Monday and Tuesday.

The heads of major governments condemned the attacks. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said "there is no place for such barbarism in our region". Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a tweet that "this is an assault on all of humanity”.

Britons in Sri Lanka who need help were urged to call the High Commission in Colombo on +94 11 5390639, while people in the UK worried about friends or family should call the Foreign Office on 020 7008 1500.

Reuters

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