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Nearly 300 killed as blasts hit Sri Lankan churches, hotels on Easter Sunday

STR, AFP | Sri Lankan security personnel walk through debris following an explosion at St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, on April 21

A series of eight devastating bomb blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka on Sunday, killing at least 290 people, including dozens of foreigners.

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The powerful blasts – six in quick succession and then two more hours later – wrought devastation at sites in and around the Sri Lankan capital, including at the well-known St Anthony's Shrine, a historic Catholic Church.

An AFP photographer at the scene at St Anthony's saw bodies lying on the floor, some draped with scarves and clothes. Much of the church roof was blown out in the explosion, with roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor along with pools of blood.

Local TV showed damage at the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, which are frequented by foreign tourists. The Shangri-La's second-floor restaurant was gutted in the blast, with the ceiling and windows blown out.

An improvised bomb discovered at the main airport in Colombo was defused late Sunday, police said.

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Police said Monday morning the death toll had risen to at least 290 with another 500 wounded in the multiple blasts. The police also said that three officers were killed while conducting a search at a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo. The occupants of the safe house apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest.

Thirteen arrests have been made, all of whom are Sri Lankans, police said.

A foreign ministry official said there were 27 bodies of suspected foreign nationals, while the police said at least 35 of the dead were foreigners. One Portuguese man, three Danes, two Turks, five British nationals (two of whom had dual US citizenship), three Indians and several American and were killed, according to their respective governments.

There were also Chinese and Dutch among the dead, according to media reports.

Sri Lankan police at the site of the blast that hit the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.
Sri Lankan police at the site of the blast that hit the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Ishara Kodikara, AFP

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts, but documents seen by AFP show that Sri Lanka's police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit "prominent churches".

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe acknowledged that the government had some "prior information of the attack", though ministers were not told.

He said there wasn't an adequate response and there needed to be an inquiry into how the information was used.

Curfew, social media blocked

The Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6pm to 6am and blocked Facebook and other social media, saying it needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

"I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today," Wickremesinghe wrote in a tweet, calling on Sri Lankans to "avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation".

By late Sunday, most social media services in the country appeared to be blocked, a group that monitors internet censorship said.

The NetBlocks observatory said it detected an intentional nationwide blackout of popular services including Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Viber.

The multiple blasts mark the worst outburst of violence in Sri Lanka since the South Asian country's bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

World leaders reacted in horror to Sunday's attacks, with Pope Francis saying he stood with the victims of "such cruel violence" in his traditional Easter Mass.

In a message posted on Twitter, French President Emmanuel Macron said he "firmly condemned the odious acts" perpetrated on Easter Sunday, expressing France's solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.

'Horrible scenes'

The first explosions were reported at St Anthony's Church in Colombo and St Sebastian's in the town of Negombo just outside the capital.

"A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there," read a post in English on the Facebook page of St Sebastian's Church.

Local witness Alex Agileson, who was in the vicinity, said buildings in the surrounding area shook with the blast. He said a number of injured were carried in ambulances.

Dozens of people injured in the St Anthony's blast flooded into the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official told AFP.

Sri Lankan churches 'have come under increasing attacks'

"Emergency meeting called in a few minutes. Rescue operations underway," Sri Lanka's Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said in a tweet on his verified account.

He said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St Anthony's Shrine and described "horrible scenes".

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

"Please stay calm and indoors," he added.

Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been almost blown off in the blast. The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood. The images could not immediately be verified.

Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.

Christian groups say they have faced increasing intimidation from some extremist Buddhist monks in recent years. And last year, there were clashes between the Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims.

(FRANCE 24 wtih AFP, AP, REUTERS)

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