Delicia Fernando was sitting toward the front of St. Anthony’s Church with her son and two daughters. Her husband, Ravi, preferred to stand at the back. Her first impulse after the explosion was to run, but then she and her children turned back to look for Ravi. They found him crushed under debris from the roof, his body pierced with shrapnel.
Sitting in the living room of her parents’ home near the church, Fernando, 52, said she had never experienced anything like this violence, not even at the height of the country’s civil war.
The violence, as described by Fernando, was part of a string of Easter bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed at least 290 people and injured more than 500.
A local Islamist extremist group, the National Thowheed Jamaath, has been accused of being behind the bombings. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the group, whose name roughly translates to National Monotheism Organization, perpetrated the attacks using suicide bombers at three churches and three hotels. He added that a foreign network was probably involved.
“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.”
● The government says the attack was carried out by the National Thowheed Jamaath, a local Islamist militant group, with suspected international assistance.
● Sri Lanka’s president has asked for international assistance in tracking down the group’s foreign connections.
● The prime minister says elements of the government had prior intelligence about the attacks.
● At least a dozen of the dead were foreigners, including from Britain, India, Japan and the United States.
Blasts ripped through three churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa about 8:45 a.m. Sunday as worshipers were gathering for services, police said.
Ruwan Wijewardene, the state defense minister, said the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers. Six of the blasts occurred between 8:45 and 9:30 a.m.
A seventh blast occurred at a banquet hall about 2 p.m. and an eighth at the house police raided about 2:45 p.m.
The deadliest attack was at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, known as “little Rome” for its Catholic presence. Officials reported at least 104 killed there.
In a sign of rising tensions in the wake of the attacks, 22 Muslim refugees from Pakistan living in Negombo faced threats and intimidation from a group of local residents. Police arrived and separated the two groups, said Kosela Navaratna, the officer in charge at the Katana police station in Negombo. The refugees are currently in police protection.
In Colombo, the three high-end hotels attacked included the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand. An official at the Sri Lankan air force said an explosive was defused close to the Bandaranaike International Airport, the city’s main airport, on Sunday night, probably an additional target.
Police also confirmed a controlled explosion late Monday afternoon of a van parked near St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, where several people were killed the day before.
Also targeted was St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade, the largest Catholic congregation in Colombo, and Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa.
At the Shangri-La Hotel, the bombing occurred in a restaurant as guests were having breakfast. Photos showed broken windows and shattered glass on a street next to the hotel.
Investigators who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media said that two suspects had checked into a room at the hotel earlier in the morning and gave local addresses.
Sarita Marlou, a guest at the hotel, wrote on Facebook that she felt the impact of the explosion in the hotel’s flagship restaurant all the way up on the 17th floor. She described seeing pools of blood as she evacuated the hotel.
Also targeted were the ground-floor Taprobane restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel and the luxury Kingsbury Hotel.
Three police officers were killed in a clash at a home in the Dematagoda area of Colombo, police said. They had gone there to interrogate a person.
Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne called for the police inspector general, Pujith Jayasundara, to resign because security agencies had received a report warning of attacks by this group against churches and hotels weeks before.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said he would seek “international assistance” with the investigation of the serial blasts. Intelligence agencies have reported that “international organizations” were behind these “acts of local terrorists,” said a statement from his office. The statement also said the government would implement anti-terrorism measures that give police additional powers, effective at midnight.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, told reporters Sunday that some government officials had prior intelligence about the attacks but did not act on it.
“Information was there,” he said at a news conference. “This is a matter we need to look into.”
The security apparatus in Sri Lanka is controlled by Sirisena, the president. Relations between him and the prime minister have been at a low point since Sirisena tried to oust Wickremesinghe from office late last year, leading to a political crisis.
Rahman, the member of Parliament briefed on the report, is affiliated with the prime minister and said Wickremesinghe “had the letter in his hand” when he met with lawmakers Sunday, referring to the notice.
“He told us that the Indian intelligence had conveyed threats of possible attacks. Two possible dates were mentioned, April 4 and 11,” Rahman said. “Part of the problem is since the October 26 coup, the prime minister has not been invited to the security council meetings, so we don’t know what is being discussed,” he added.
Attention is now focusing on why and how the government and security forces were unable to foil the coordinated bombings. Two officials provided The Washington Post with the three-page intelligence report that the health minister alluded to, in which a senior police official warned of potential suicide attacks by the same Islamist extremist group.
The report also identified several members by name, including the group’s alleged leader, Mohamed Zaharan. Mujibur Rahman, a member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament who was briefed on the report, said it was based on input from Indian intelligence agencies.
Police arrested 21 people in connection with the bombings, and three police officers were killed during a raid at a suspect’s house.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday blamed “Islamic radical terror” for the attacks. He said he spoke Monday morning with Wickremesinghe and pledged that the United States would offer “all possible assistance” to Sri Lanka.
“This is America’s fight, too,” Pompeo said at a news conference.
The highly coordinated attacks left the island nation reeling, a crushing blow after almost a decade of peace since the end of its civil war.
In that time, tourism in Sri Lanka had been steadily growing, the country transformed by the apparent end of instability, bloodshed and frequent suicide bombings over the 26-year war.
Images of splintered pews and bloodstained floors played across local television screens Sunday as the enormity of the attacks, carried out on the holiest day of the Christian calendar, became clear.
From the altar of St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, the Rev. Joy Mariyaratnam looked out at worshipers packed into pews and standing along walls for Easter Sunday.
Nearly halfway through the Mass, as the congregation stood to recite prayers, he heard a blast and saw what he described as a fireball.
The explosion was so powerful that it blew off much of the church’s roof, sending debris raining down on the people below.
As the smoke cleared, he saw a terrifying scene: scores of wounded and dead, crying out in pain and fear. At first, Mariyaratnam was motionless with panic.
Although a majority of the dead were Sri Lankan, at least a dozen were foreigners, including people from Britain, India, Japan, Turkey and the United States. At least seven Indian citizens were killed in the attacks, the Indian Embassy reported. The unidentified bodies of 25 people believed to be foreigners were at a government mortuary in Colombo.
The dead included “several” Americans, Pompeo said.
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist nation, but it is also home to significant Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities. Although there has been intermittent conflict between religious groups — including threats to Christians — nothing remotely like Sunday’s attacks had occurred.
Pompeo condemned the attacks “in the strongest terms.”
“Attacks on innocent people gathering in a place of worship or enjoying a holiday meal are affronts to the universal values and freedoms that we hold dear, and demonstrate yet again the brutal nature of radical terrorists whose sole aim is to threaten peace and security,” he said in a statement.
In an updated travel advisory issued late Sunday, the State Department warned that “terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka,” citing threats to tourist sites, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship and other public areas.
Sri Lankan authorities blocked Facebook and the messaging application WhatsApp in an attempt to halt the spread of false and inflammatory messages.
A curfew has also been imposed from 8 p.m. Monday night until 4 a.m. Tuesday. Security was heightened at churches nationwide, and the streets of Colombo grew quiet and deserted as the curfew took effect.
Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, condemned “the cowardly attacks on our people today” and urged the country to remain “united and strong.”
The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist activity online, reported Sunday that Islamic State supporters were portraying the attacks as revenge for strikes on mosques and Muslims.
Yousef A. al-Othaimeen, head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, “strongly condemned” the “cowardly attacks [on] innocent worshipers and civilians.” The OIC represents 57 predominantly Muslim nations.
People in Sri Lanka expressed disbelief about the violence. Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director for the human rights group Amnesty International, said Sri Lanka has witnessed rising hostility toward Christians and Muslims in recent years, including repeated attempts to disrupt prayers at churches. But the scale of Sunday’s attacks, he said, was “shocking and unprecedented.”
The bombings were the worst violence to hit Colombo since 1996, when a blast at the country’s central bank killed nearly 100 people. That attack was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, which waged a war for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north for more than 30 years.
Messages of condolence and condemnation on Sunday poured in from around the world.
Pope Francis during his Easter address called the attacks “horrendous” and expressed a “heartfelt closeness to the Christian community, attacked while gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such a cruel act of violence.”
The next day, before tens of thousands during an Easter Monday sermon, he brought up the Sri Lanka attacks again, asking people to help the island nation.
“I hope that everyone condemns these terrorist acts, inhuman acts, never justifiable,” he said.