Authorities in Sri Lanka have put in motion a massive security operation and enforced a curfew after a wave of bombs in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka massacred more than 150 people and injured hundreds.
The eight blasts, some of which officials said were suicide bomb attacks, appeared timed to cause maximum casualties and panic among worshippers attending Easter services.
In one church, St. Sebastian’s in Katuwapitiya, north of the capital, Colombo, more than 50 people had been killed, a police official said. Much of the church roof was blown out in the explosion, with roof tiles and splintered wood littering the floor and pools of blood in between wounded worshippers.
In total, three churches and four hotels were targeted. The only isolated explosion from this pattern was in a house in Colombo, authorities said.
Most of the targets were either in or close to the capital. Among the four hotels targeted was the Cinnamon Grand, a luxury hotel in the center of the city that is favored by top politicians.
The incursions are the most significant in the small island nation for many years, and come a decade after the end of a brutal and bloody civil war.
Security officials told the Guardian the situation was “live” shortly after two blasts were reported in Colombo three hours after the first attacks were reported.
One explosion occurred at a hotel near the national zoo, when attackers were reportedly cornered by security forces.
Hospitals were struggling to contend with the onslaught of casualties.
Authorities have imposed a curfew, though it was unclear if the ban on movement would start immediately or was overnight. But it was later made evident, that it would be immediate when the authorities shut down the internet.
At least 160 people injured in the St Anthony’s blast had been admitted to the Colombo National hospital alone by mid-morning, one official said. The main hospital in the eastern port city of Batticaloa had received more than 300 people with injuries following the blast at the Zion church.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, convenened Sri Lanka‘s top military officials at an emergency meeting of the national security council.
“I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation,” Wickremesinghe said on Twitter.
Leaders around the world rushed to condemn the attacks.
Theresa May, the UK prime minister, called the blasts “appalling” and Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said those affected would be in the prayers of millions marking Easter Sunday around the world.
“On this holy day, let us stand with the people of Sri Lanka in prayer, condolence and solidarity as we reject all violence, all hatred and all division,” he said.
Sri Lanka is a popular tourist destination and nine foreigners were among the dead, officials said.
Julian Emmanuel and his family, from Surrey, were staying at the Cinnamon Grand when the bomb went off. He told the BBC: “We were in our room and heard a large explosion. It woke us up. There were ambulances, fire crews, police sirens.
“I came out of the room to see what’s happening. We were ushered downstairs. We were told there had been a bomb. Staff said some people were killed.
The blasts marked the end of a lull in violence after the bloody end of the civil war in 2009 during which bombings were common.
Harsha de Silva, Sri Lanka’s economic reforms minister, described horrible scenes at the sites of two attacks.
“I saw many body parts strewn all over. Emergency crews are at all locations in full force,” he tweeted after visiting the Shangri-La and St. Anthony’s. “We took multiple casualties to hospital. Hopefully saved many lives.”
Colombo’s archbishop, Malcolm Ranjith, called on the public to rally in support of the victims, according to local media, requesting all doctors to report to work despite the holiday and members of the public to donate blood.
The Muslim council of Sri Lanka issued a statement condemning the attack on the places of worship of “our Christian brothers and sisters on their holy day of Easter, as well as on the hotels in Colombo”.
“We mourn the loss of innocent lives due to extremist and violent elements who wish to create divides between religious and ethnic groups to realise their agenda,” the statement said.
Out of Sri Lanka‘s total population of around 22 million, 70% are Buddhist, 12.6% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim, and 7.6% Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.
There has been growing intercommunal tension in Sri Lanka for several years. Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to organisations that represent more than 200 local churches and other Christian organisations.
This year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (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 25 March.