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Sri Lanka declares state of emergency, grants army new powers after Easter attacks

Dinuka Liyanawatte, Reuters | Security officers on April 22, 2019 inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked on Easter Sunday.

An emergency law granting police and the military extensive powers to detain and question suspects without court orders goes into effect at midnight, Sri Lanka's presidency announced Monday, following Easter attacks that killed at least 290 people.

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President Maithripala Sirisena's office announced that the nationwide emergency law, which gives police and the military sweeping new powers to detain and interrogate suspects without a court's approval, will go into effect at midnight. A government curfew is also set to begin at 8pm.

Colombo, the seaside capital of the Indian Ocean island, was still jittery on Monday. Police said 87 bomb detonators were found at the city's main bus station, while an explosive went off near a church where at least 290 were killed on Sunday when bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it.

The bomb attacks were the worst violence seen in Sri Lanka since the country's 37-year-long conflict with Tamil rebels ended a decade ago.

Reporting from Colombo, FRANCE 24’s Mandakini Gahlot said the city was still reeling from shock and grief a day after the bloody coordinated attacks. “Sri Lankans are describing a Monday unlike any other that they have seen in a very long time. The streets are deserted, the mood is forlorn and it seems like everyone is asking the question, ‘Why us?’”

Describing the scene at Colombo’s iconic St. Anthony’s Church, which was targeted during an Easter service, Gahlot said, “We witnessed a community in mourning. Lots of people who still cannot trace their loved ones. There are people outside the city’s main hospitals, they’re still looking for their loved ones.”

Intelligence tip-off

Investigators said seven suicide bombers took part in the attacks while a government spokesman said an international network was involved.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack but the government said it was focusing on an Islamist militant group in the Buddhist-majority country. Police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by a little-known domestic Islamist group some 10 days ago, according to news reports. It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken after the tip-off.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said an international network may have been involved but did not elaborate.

"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," Senaratne said. "There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded."

President Sirisena said in a statement that the government would seek foreign assistance to track any overseas links.

Questions over why the intelligence warning was not acted upon could feed into a feud between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the president.

Sirisena fired the premier last year and installed opposition strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead. Weeks later, he was forced to re-instate Wickremesinghe because of pressure from the Supreme Court and their relationship is still fraught as a presidential election nears.

Police said Monday that 24 people had so far been arrested, all of whom were Sri Lankan, but gave no further details.

International links

Two of the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo's seafront, said Ariyananda Welianga, a senior official at the government's forensic division. The others targeted three churches and two other hotels.

A fourth hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital Colombo were also hit, but it was not immediately clear how those attacks were carried out.

"Still the investigations are going on," Welianga said.

Sri Lanka was at war for decades with ethnic minority Tamil separatists, most of them Hindu, but violence had largely ended since the government's victory in the civil war 10 years ago.

Sri Lanka's 22 million people include a majority Buddhist community as well as minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

Foreign victims

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans although government officials said 32 foreigners were killed, including British, US, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Authorities in Colombo said Monday that a French national was also among the victims.

Denmark's richest man Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife lost three of their four children in the attacks, a spokesman for his fashion firm said.

A British mother and son at breakfast at the Shangri-La were among the dead, British media reported, while five Indian political workers were killed at the same hotel, relatives told Indian media.

The hotel said several guests and three employees were killed.

The US State Department said in a travel advisory "terrorist groups" were plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka and targets could include tourist spots, transport hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship and airports.

There were fears the attacks could spark communal violence, with police reporting late on Sunday there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.

'Absolute carnage'

An Australian survivor, identified only as Sam, told Australia's 3AW radio the hotel was a scene of "absolute carnage".

He said he and a travel partner were having breakfast at the Shangri-La when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.

"There were people screaming and dead bodies all around," he said. "Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don't know if they were dead or not, just crazy."

There were similar scenes of carnage at two churches in or near Colombo, and a third church in the northeast town of Batticaloa, where worshippers had gathered. Pictures showed bodies on the ground and blood-spattered pews and statues.

Dozens were killed in a blast at the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Police said they suspected it was a suicide attack.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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