Sunday 20 October 2019

Local militant group behind Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings, says minister

The explosions, mostly in or around the capital Colombo, killed at least 290 people and injured 500 others.

Relatives weep near the coffin of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St Sebastian Church (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)
Relatives weep near the coffin of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St Sebastian Church (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

By Bharatha Mallawarachi and Krishan Francis, Associated Press

A Sri Lankan government official has said a local militant group named National Thowfeek Jamaath is responsible for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings.

Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told a news conference on Monday that all seven bombers linked to the near-simultaneous attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels in and around Colombo were Sri Lankan citizens.

Officials said the causes of three later bombings on Sunday are still being investigated.

Mr Semaratme said that while the group is domestic, foreign links are suspected.

A total of nine bombings on Sunday killed at least 290 people including at least 27 foreigners. About 500 others were wounded in the blasts. Eight Britons are believed to be among the dead.

Officials said 24 suspects are in custody for questioning.

Two government ministers have alluded to intelligence failures.

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People gather outside St Anthony’s Shrine, a day after a blast in Colombo (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando tweeted: “Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored.”

Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said the security officers within his ministry had been warned by their division about the possibility two suicide bombers would target politicians.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said the Criminal Investigation Department probing the blasts will look into the reports.

Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena previously described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists.

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(PA Graphics)

Sri Lankan government forensic crime analyst said Ariyananda Welianga said two people were involved in the attack at the Shangri-La hotel. One bomber each attacked the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels, and St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, St Sebastian’s church in the city of Negombo and Zion Church in the city of Batticaloa.

Two bombings hours later at a guesthouse and near an overpass on the outskirts of Colombo are still under investigation. Suspects detonated explosives at a safe house near the overpass blast, killing three officers.

The explosions — mostly in or around Colombo, the capital — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests.

“People were being dragged out,” said Bhanuka Harischandra, of Colombo, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company who was going to the Shangri-La 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.”

Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists, and Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners had been recovered.

The dead included people from Britain, the US, China, Japan, Portugal and Australia.

The Sri Lankan government lifted a curfew that had been imposed during the night. But most social media remained blocked on Monday after officials said they needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to take action against those responsible.

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”.

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A woman lights a candle at a vigil for the victims of bomb explosions in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Buddhist-majority country. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.

“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,” Francis said.

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Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing (Andrew Medichini/AP)

The Shangri-La’s second-floor restaurant was gutted, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung down and tables were overturned in the blackened space.

Locals who work in Sri Lanka’s vital tourism industry were shocked and upset by the bloodshed.

“After so many years, we’ve started again,” said Gamini Francis, 56, a long-time hotel worker. “A lot of people are going to lose their jobs. 100% sure. It’s tragic. Crazy people killing innocent people.”

Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, ending a civil war that took over 100,000 lives, with both sides accused of grave human rights violations.

Mr Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was “a lot of tension” after the bombings, but added: “We’ve been through these kinds of situations before.”

He said Sri Lankans are “an amazing bunch” and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.

PA Media

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