Sri Lanka Attacks Death Toll From Bombings Rises Sharply To 290
(The Guardian) – The death toll from the wave of bombings targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has risen dramatically to 290, with about 500 people injured, amid questions as to whether security services could have prevented the attack.
By Monday, the police had 24 suspects in custody. Spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara said they had seized a van and driver they believe transported the suspects into Colombo and also raided a safe house used by the attackers. Three police were among the dead when the eighth bomb went off during a raid on a housing complex in Colombo during the hunt for the attackers.
The defence minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said the culprits were religious extremists but declined to specify further, and no group has directly claimed responsibility yet.
Hundreds of Sri Lankans and at least 30 foreigners including those from the UK, Turkey, Japan, the Netherlands, China, Portugal, Australia and India are among the dead after the coordinated attacks, the worst Sri Lanka has seen since the bloody civil war ended a decade ago.
Questions remain as to whether more could have been done to prevent the series of deadly explosions. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, conceded that the Sri Lankan intelligence services had been “aware of information” of a possible attack on churches up to 10 days ago, but that his ministers had not been informed, and said the government “must look into why adequate precautions were not taken”.
On Monday morning, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe convened a meeting with top military officials at an emergency session of the national security council to investigate the attacks.
Wickremesinghe’s claims were echoed by telecommunications minister, Harin Fernando, who, on Sunday night, tweeted images of a memo from the Sri Lankan intelligence services, dated 11 April, which laid out details of a possible planned attack. Speaking to the Today Programme, Fernando said the government also had not ruled out an attempted coup.
“There are so many ways we could look at this, but right now our biggest priority would be to find what really led these eight or 10 or 12 men to carry out this attack,” he said. “But we are not ruling out a coup as well.”
On Monday morning, Wickremesinghe visited one of the churches destroyed in the blast. “Orders have been given to find those responsible,” he told reporters at the scene. “They will be given all powers they want. We cannot allow these crimes to take place. We will also look into the shortcomings. For the next few days the important thing is to maintain peace.”
The eight blasts, which police confirmed were suicide bomb attacks, seemed designed to cause maximum casualties, targeting worshippers at Easter Sunday services and guests having breakfast in the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo. One witness described a suicide bomber detonating his device when he reached the front of a buffet queue at the Shangri-La restaurant. A British woman and her 11-year-old son are widely reported to be among those who died while having breakfast at the Shangri-La.
Fears of more attacks continued through Sunday. An unexploded improvised device was found by police later that night on the roadside near Colombo airport, described by an airforce spokesperson as “a crude six-foot pipe bomb”.
Details about those who had died in the attacks began to trickle out slowly on Monday morning. One of the first Sri Lankans confirmed dead was celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne, who had been having breakfast at the Shangri-La hotel with her family when the blast went off.
The police declined say which site had been worst hit or break down the death toll. However, it is thought that at least 50 people were killed at St Sebastian’s church in the seaside town of Negombo and at least 160 people were injured in a blast at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.
The curfew, which had been imposed nationwide from 6pm on Sunday, was lifted on Monday morning but commandos still stood guard at the hotels and churches and a government block on social media sites and apps such as Facebook and Whatsapp remained, which the government said was to prevent the spread of misinformation that could further inflame tensions.
As the curfew lifted in the seaside town of Negombo, where St Sebastian’s church had been overflowing with people attending the Easter service, members of the congregation gathered on Monday morning to take in the devastation.
Among them was Dilip Fernando, who had narrowly avoided being inside the church during mass because it was too overcrowded, but believed his family members had seen the suicide bomber, a “young and innocent looking man”, entering St Sebastian’s with a backpack.
“At the end of the mass they saw one young man go into the church with a heavy bag,” Fernando told AFP. “He touched my granddaughter’s head on the way past. It was the bomber. He was not excited or afraid. He was so calm.”
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