Colombo: Islamic State has claimed responsibility for coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka which killed 253 people and injured about 500 others, the group's AMAQ news agency said on Tuesday. Sri Lankan Islamist extremist Zahran Hashim, said to be the top leader of an IS linked local militant group, died in the blast at the Shangri-La hotel, President Maithripala Sirisena said Friday. Hashim, the head of extremist group National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ), led the attack on the hotel and was accompanied by a second bomber identified as Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim.
Sri Lanka had enforced a state of emergency from midnight Monday in the wake of the deadly Easter blasts enhancing the counter terrorism powers of of the security forces. The decision was made during a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena. The government has declared Tuesday as a national day of mourning.
Seven suicide bombers took part in the attacks on churches and luxury hotels, an investigator revealed on Monday. 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 targeted. It was not immediately clear how those attacks were carried out.
"Guests who had come for breakfast were lying on the floor, blood all over," an employee at Kingsbury Hotel, one of those targeted, told Reuters. "We just picked up everyone, dead or alive and evacuated them."
Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said an international network was 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."
The president, Maithripala Sirisena, said in a statement the country will seek foreign assistance to track the international links.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged on Sunday that the government had some prior information about possible attacks on churches involving a little-known local Islamist group.
A domestic intelligence report dated April 11 and seen by Reuters said a foreign intelligence agency had warned Sri Lankan authorities of possible attacks.
Four of the bombs went off at roughly the same time on Sunday, at 8:45am, with two others coming within 20 minutes. The explosions at the fourth hotel and the house were in the afternoon.
Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans although government officials said 32 foreigners were killed, including British, US, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.
Denmark's richest man Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife lost three of their four children in the attacks, a spokesman for Povlsen's fashion firm said.
The US State Department said in a travel advisory "terrorist groups" were continuing to plot possible attacks in Sri Lanka and targets could include tourist spots, transport hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship, airports and other public areas.
When first reports came in from Lanka about the blasts, initial suspicion was on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) because this terror group was known for its suicide attacks. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE bomber.
However, media reports claimed that the Easter Day attacks have all the ingredients of an Islamist group's operation. Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat (SLTJ), a Wahhabi-aligned group, has its presence in Lanka's eastern parts and its mission was to push Sharia law.
Ten Indians killed
Among those killed, eight were Indians, including a Keralite who was identified as P S Razeena Khadar, 58, a native of Mogral Puthur in Kasaragod district. She was on a holiday in the island nation with her husband, Manorama News reported.
According to the TV report, Razeena was about to join her brother on Sunday after her husband had left for Dubai.
Other Indians who were killed are Vemurai Tulsiram, S R Nagaraj, K G Hanumantharayappa, M Rangappa, Lakshmi, Narayan Chandrashekhar, Ramesh, and H Shivakumar.
Foreign nationals killed
Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Kishu Gomes said 33 foreign nationals have been killed in the coordinated attacks believed to be carried out by a single group. Director of the National Hospital Dr Anil Jasinghe identified 12 of the 33 foreign nationals, which include three Indians, two Chinese and one each from Poland, Japan, Pakistan, America, Morocco and Bangladesh.
Also among the fatalities were three people from Denmark, two from Turkey, and one from Portugal, the officials said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said US nationals were among those killed, but did not give details.
There are 25 unidentified bodies, believed to be of foreigners, at the Colombo Judicial Medical Officer's mortuary, Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said.
A total of seven suicide bombers carried out the series of devastating blasts that tore through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing 359 people in the country's worst terror attack, the Government Analysts Department said on Monday.
"The attacks which had taken place at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury, and Cinnamon Grand hotels and also at St Anthony's Church in Kotahena, St. Sebastians Church in Katuwapitiya, and the Zeon Church in Batticaloa have been identified as suicide bombings," the Sunday Times reported, quoting the Government Analysts Department.
Hours after the six blasts, another explosion rocked Colombo.
When a police team entered a house in the Colombo north suburb of Orugodawatta to conduct a search Sunday, a suicide bomber blew himself up causing a concrete floor of a two-storey building to crash on them, killing three policemen in the eighth blast.
"A total of seven suicide bombers had carried out these explosions," the department said.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009, a time when bomb blasts in the capital were common.
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.
He also said the government needs to look at the international links of a local militant group.
The Prime Minister termed the blasts as "cowardly attacks" and said his government was working to "contain the situation."
He also said that as per the information he has received, "the perpetrators were locals".
"Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation."
State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said "We believe these were coordinated attacks, and one group was behind them".
Agence France Presse reported that it had seen documents showing 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". He cited a foreign intelligence service as reporting that a little-known Islamist group was planning attacks.
A Sri Lanka police spokesman said he was not aware of the intelligence report.
Local Christian groups have said they faced increasing intimidation from some extremist Buddhist monks in recent years. Last year, there were clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.
Dozens were killed in one of the blasts at St. Sebastian's Gothic-style Catholic church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Gunasekera said the police suspected a suicide attack there. Pictures from the site showed bodies on the ground, blood on the church pews and a destroyed roof.
Local media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on an evangelical church in Batticaloa in Eastern Province.
The hotels hit in Colombo were the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury, the Cinnamon Grand and the Tropical Inn near the national zoo. There was no word on casualties in the hotels, but a witness told local TV he saw some body parts, including a severed head, lying on the ground beside the Tropical Inn.
The first six explosions were all reported within a short period in the morning just as church services were starting.
One of the explosions was at St. Anthony's Shrine, a Catholic church in Kochcikade, Colombo, a tourist landmark.
The explosion at the Tropical Inn happened later and there was an eighth explosion at a house in Colombo. Police and media said that three officers were killed and eight people detained during a raid on this location.
Appeal for peace
President Maithripala Sirisena has appealed for calm.
"I have been shocked by this totally unexpected incidents. The security forces haven been asked to take all action necessary," Sirisena said.
Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.
The military was deployed, a military spokesman said, and security stepped up at Colombo's international airport.
PM Modi condemns
Condemning serial blasts in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday said there is no place for barbarism in the region.
He also said that India stands in solidarity with the people of the island nation.
"Strongly condemn the horrific blasts in Sri Lanka. There is no place for such barbarism in our region," he tweeted.
He said, India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.
"My thoughts are with the bereaved families and prayers with the injured," Modi said.
The first blasts were reported at St Anthony's church in Colombo and St Sebastian's Church in 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 the St Sebastian's Church.
Images circulated on social media showed severely damaged St Sebastian's church, with a shattered ceiling and blood on the pews.
Heavy security has been deployed at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The riot police and the Special Task Force, extra police security has been deployed around the airport, state-run Daily News reported.
Leave of all police personnel has been cancelled in the wake of blasts.
Doctors, nurses and health officials who were on leave have been asked to report to work, Health Ministry sources said.
All state Universities have been closed until further notice.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said all Easter masses in the Colombo District have been cancelled.
Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose leadership the Lankan Army crushed the LTTE, termed the attack as "barbaric".
"We will not tolerate such violence, such acts of terrorism, of cowardice within our borders once again," he said.
India on Sunday said that it was closely monitoring the situation in Sri Lanka.
"Colombo - I am in constant touch with Indian High Commissioner in Colombo. We are keeping a close watch on the situation. @IndiainSL," External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted.
"Explosions have been reported in Colombo and Batticaloa today. We are closely monitoring the situation. Indian citizens in need of assistance or help and for seeking clarification may call the following numbers : +94777903082 +94112422788 +94112422789," the Indian High Commission in Colombo tweeted.
"In addition to the numbers given, Indian citizens in need of assistance or help and for seeking clarification may also call the following numbers +94777902082 +94772234176," the high commission tweeted.
Attacks on Christians
One of the explosions was at St Anthony's Shrine, a Catholic Church in Kochcikade, Colombo, which is a tourist landmark.
St. Sebastian's posted pictures of destruction inside the church on its Facebook page, showing blood on pews and the floor, and requested help from the public.
Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organisations.
This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.
Out of Sri Lanka's total population of around 22 million, 70 per cent are Buddhist, 12.6 per cent Hindu, 9.7 per cent Muslim and 7.6 per cent Christian, according to the country's 2012 census.
In its 2018 report on Sri Lanka's human rights, the US State Department noted that some Christian groups and churches reported they had been pressured to end worship meetings after authorities classified them as "unauthorized gatherings".
The report also said Buddhist monks regularly tried to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing unidentified sources.
Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, told local TV that the public should remain calm and asked authorities to bring those responsible for the attacks before the law. He also requested the public donate blood for the injured.
Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam announced that all schools would be closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day after his death on the cross.
Our Correspondent Kamanthi Wickramasinghe adds
The St. Anthony's Church in Kochchikade, a national shrine, is a famous Catholic Church in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Colombo.
It draws thousands of pilgrims for its tiny piece believed to be the tongue of St. Anthony is enshrined in a special reliquary kept in a glass case which also has the statue of the saint.
St. Sebastian is the patron saint of the city of Negombo.
The Zion Church in Batticaloa is renown for its amazing healing powers.
The five-star hotels that were targeted are the Shangri-La hotel, The Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand, all located in the heart of Colombo.
(With inputs from PTI and Reuters)
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