Sri Lanka Bombings Live Updates: ‘It Was a River of Blood’

Covered bodies and debris in St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after a string of explosions ripped through hotels and churches on Sunday

Sri Lanka Bombings Live Updates: ‘It Was a River of Blood’

At least eight bombing attacks struck at least three churches in Sri Lanka, along with three five-star hotels favored by foreigners, killing more than 200 people.CreditCreditEranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

As Christians in Sri Lanka gathered on Sunday morning to celebrate Easter Mass, the culmination of Holy Week, powerful explosions ripped through three churches packed with worshipers, leaving hundreds of victims amid a havoc of splintered and blood-spattered pews.

In what the police said were coordinated attacks carried out by a single group, bombers also struck three five-star hotels popular with tourists. At least 207 people were killed and 450 others injured, a police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekera, said.

News of the bombings, the largest targeted attack on South Asian Christians in recent memory, rippled out all Easter morning, interrupting celebrations across the world. Pope Francis, after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square, said the attacks had “brought mourning and sorrow” on the most important of Christian holidays.

Sri Lanka emerged a decade ago from a bloody, 26-year civil war, during which Tamil guerrillas pioneered large-scale use of suicide bombing. Effective use of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka was then widely studied and copied in the Middle East.

“It has been 10 years since we last saw this kind of horror,” said Hemasiri Fernando, the country’s defense secretary.

[Photographs of the destruction. | Read more of our coverage.]

• The bombings began around 8:45 a.m., and targeted Roman Catholic houses of worship — St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the capital; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo; and Zion Church in Batticaloa — along with the luxury hotels the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand, and the Kingsbury, all in Colombo.

• Seven suspects were arrested in connection with the bombings, Sri Lanka’s defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said. He said that suicide bombers had been behind the explosions.

• Sri Lanka temporarily blocked major social media and messaging services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, to curb misinformation, according to the president’s secretary, Udaya Seneviratne.

• At least 27 of the dead were foreigners, according to a spokesman at Sri Lanka’s National Hospital. They included British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese nationals, according to officials and news reports.

Covered bodies and debris in St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after a string of explosions ripped through hotels and churches on Sunday
Covered bodies and debris in St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after a string of explosions ripped through hotels and churches on Sunday

Images from the bombing sites showed bloodied and shattered pews and victims lying on the floor of houses of worship. The walls and windows of the targeted hotels were blown out.

Some of the victims were killed as worshipers gathered for Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, about 20 miles north of Colombo; and Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa, officials said.

By Julie Shaver
By Julie SBy Julie Shaverhaver

The attacks also targeted high-end hotels in the capital, including the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury.

Mangala Samaraweera, the Sri Lankan finance minister, called the explosions “a well-coordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy.”

A witness, Sarita Marlou, who was at the Shangri-La hotel, wrote in a Facebook post that one blast occurred at 8:57 a.m. in the Table One Restaurant on the third floor where people had gathered for brunch.

“Felt the blast all the way up to the 17th floor where we were sleeping,” she wrote. “Few minutes later, we were asked to evacuate the hotel. While running down the stairs, saw a lot of blood on the floor but we were still clueless as to what really happened.”

Ms. Marlou posted that the guests had been stuck outside for more than two hours before being ushered back inside as the sun got hot. But they still were not cleared to go back to their rooms, she wrote.

N. A. Sumanapala, a shopkeeper near St. Anthony’s Shrine who said he had run inside to help, said: “It was a river of blood. Ash was falling like snow.”

Sri Lankan Special Task Force members during a raid on a house in a suburb of Colombo on Sunday.
Sri Lankan Special Task Force members during a raid on a house in a suburb of Colombo on Sunday.

Ruwan Wijewardene, the defense minister, said that seven people had been arrested and identified in connection with the attacks. The government also said that suicide bombers had set off the explosions.

“We believe these were coordinated attacks, and one group was behind them,” Mr. Wijewardene said. He urged the news media not to report the names of the attackers or to make them “martyrs.”

Three officers were killed while hunting for the attackers at a housing complex in the Colombo suburb of Dematagoda, officials said. The police said they had found explosives inside one of the apartments and that a firefight had broken out between officers and the suspects inside the building.

One suspect detonated explosives during questioning by the police inside a home in the suburb. Officials at the site said they believed the attacks had been planned there. As the authorities questioned members of the group, another suspect escaped, and was being sought by a circling helicopter.

Mr. Wijewardene said that police units had been put on alert a week ago by the force’s chief inspector, Pujith Jayasundara, about potential attacks on churches. It was unclear what steps had been taken to safeguard against attacks.

Sri Lankan officials also temporarily blocked several social media networks, including Facebook and Instagram. Users also reported being unable to access the messaging services WhatsApp and Viber. The government set a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday.

Though Sunday’s attacks have no known link to social media, Sri Lanka has a troubled history with racial violence incited on the platforms. Its ban was an extraordinary step that reflects growing global concerns about social media.

Last year, Sri Lanka briefly blocked social networks after viral misinformation and calls to anti-Muslim violence, circulating largely on Facebook, were blamed for a wave of riots and lynchings. Government officials had repeatedly warned Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, that the posts could lead to violence. Though the company promised to hire more moderators and improve communication, the episode left officials wary of the social media giant.

Other countries, such as India, have periodically blocked social media during spasms of violence linked to the platforms. While researchers have blamed Facebook for inciting racist attacks in a range of countries, including Germany, the risk is thought to be higher in places where trust in the local authorities is lower and histories of communal violence are more recent.

The growing concerns threaten Facebook’s long-term business model, which relies on near-constant growth in developing markets, particularly in Asia.

Sri Lanka’s ban on social media on Sunday represented an escalation in the global backlash against social media companies because the move appeared to be pre-emptive. Rather than trusting in Facebook and other companies to police their networks for hate speech or incitement that could arise as a result of Sunday’s attacks, the government was treating the platforms as too dangerous to remain online.

The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, called for people not to believe false information circulating online. The Sri Lanka Red Cross also said in a tweet that online rumors that its building had been attacked were false.

Mourners near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo
Mourners near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended 10 years ago, but memories of urban carnage are still fresh, particularly for residents of the capital. During the conflict, brutal bombings of airports, bus stations, banks, cafes, and hotels were not uncommon.

The Cinnamon Grand, one of the hotels targeted on Sunday, had been blown up before, in 1984, when it was called the Hotel Lanka Oberoi.

The Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka traces its roots to the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 1500s and the subsequent influence of Portuguese, Dutch and Irish missionaries. Sri Lankan Catholics make up a significant minority of the country’s population, accounting for roughly 6 percent of the country and centered largely in the Colombo-Negombo area.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II traveled to Sri Lanka to canonize Joseph Vaz, an Indian-born priest and missionary.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that given Sri Lanka’s long history of ethnic and religious violence, including a nearly three-decade civil war that ended only in 2009, it was premature to jump to conclusions about whether radicalized Muslims might have played a role in the assault.

But the scale of the attacks and the death toll on Sunday were unprecedented, even by Sri Lanka’s bloody standards, Ms. Ganguly said.

“In three decades of war, this scale of attack has never happened,” she said. “In terms of serious, religion-based violence, we haven’t really seen that.”

The blast shattered windows and walls at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo.
The blast shattered windows and walls at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo.

Pope Francis, after celebrating Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, said, “I want to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, struck while it was gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence.”

He added, “I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed.”

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called the blasts “horrific” in a post on Twitter. “There is no place for such barbarism in our region,” he wrote. India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor and shares many cultural and economic ties with the island nation.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan said his country “stands in complete solidarity with Sri Lanka in their hour of grief.”

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were among the European leaders to express their grief. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union Commission, said that he had received news of the bombings “with horror and sadness.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey also wrote on Twitter that the attack had been “an assault on all of humanity.”

President Trump said on Twitter that the United States stood ready to help, though the tweet inflated the number of victims in a typo.

“Heartfelt condolences from the people of the United States to the people of Sri Lanka on the horrible terrorist attacks on churches and hotels,” he wrote, adding that the explosions had “killed at least 138 million people and badly injured 600 more.”

Ellen Barry, Keith Bradsher, Max Fisher, Dharisha Bastians, Mujib Mashal, Gerry Mullany, Vindu Goel and Iliana Magra contributed reporting.

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