An inside view of the St. Anthony’s Shrine after an explosion hit St Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. (Photo by Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Nearly 200 people died and hundreds more injured after six nearly simultaneous explosions struck three churches and three luxury hotels in and just outside of Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday. They were followed hours later by two more blasts.
The country’s deputy transport minister told reporters that at least 190 people died in the series of blasts – marking the bloodshed as the worst since the South Asian country’s 26-year civil war ended a decade ago.
Multiple fatalities – including nearly a dozen foreigners – resulted among worshipers and hotel guests. With a curfew imposed, police conducted a search operation on the outskirts of Colombo, where that the latest of eight blasts took place.
Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the attacks as a terrorist incident and blamed religious extremists. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in the country and its economy.
The first explosion occurred around 8:45 a.m. local time, with the deadliest appearing to be at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a city about 20 miles north of Colombo. Other attacks occurred at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa. The three hotels – the Shangri La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury Hotel – all in Colombo are frequented by foreign tourists.
Sri Lankan Army soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony’s Shrine after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019 (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
The other two blasts occurred in Dematagoda, where the occupants of a safehouse apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest.
An official told the Associated Press that at least two of the church blasts were believed to have been coordinated attack carried out by suicide bombers.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s blasts.
“The United States offers heartfelt condolences to the great people of Sri Lanka,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted in part early Sunday. “We stand ready to help!”
Photos from the scene showed extensive damage, along with blood and debris inside the targeted churches.
U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz offered her condolences over Twitter early Sunday.
“Deeply saddened by the senseless attacks in Sri Lanka today. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families. We stand with Sri Lanka’s people at this terrible moment,” she tweeted.
St. Sebastian’s pleaded for help on its Facebook page. The explosion ripped the roof off the building and knocked out doors and windows. Churches throughout the country have been placed on alert, with many canceling Easter services.
Foreign tourists on the Classic Sri Lankan tour hurriedly took to their cellphones to text family and loved ones around the world that they were OK after the blasts.
The group was on a 15-day tour of the tropical island nation, seeing sites including huge Buddhist monuments, tea plantations, jungle eco-lodges and famed sandy beaches.
People gather outside St. Anthony’s Shrine where a blast happened, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019. (Associated Press)
Sri Lankan Member of Parliament Harsha de Silva tweeted Sunday of “many casualties including foreigners.”
“Sec Defence and I am at Kochchikade church. Also was at ShangriLa n Kingsbury. PM is on his way from Bentota. Emergency meeting called in a few minutes. Rescue operations underway. Please stay calm and indoors. Many casualties including foreigners,” he posted.
“Horrible scenes. I saw many body parts strewn all over. Emergency crews are at all locations in full force. We, at 1990 also have close to 20 units at the various locations. We took multiple casualties to hospital. Hopefully saved many lives,” he continued.
The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on Sri Lanka’s government to launch a “very impartial strong inquiry” and to punish those found responsible “mercilessly because only animals can behave like that.”
There was an outpouring of condemnation from around the world following the attacks.
Pope Francis denounced the “cruel violence” at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing.
Speaking from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis said: “I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence.”
He added: “I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event.”
British Prime Minister Teresa May tweeted “We must stand together to make sure that no one should ever have to (practice) their faith in fear.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned the “devastating” attacks, and referred to the March 15 shootings at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in which 50 died.
“New Zealand condemns all acts of terrorism and our resolve has only been strengthened by the attack on our soil,” Ardern said. “New Zealand rejects all forms of extremism and stands for freedom of religion and the right to worship safely.”
Sri Lankan security forces in 2009 defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought to create an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils. The U.N. initially estimated the death toll from 26 years of fighting to be about 100,000 but a U.N. experts’ panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.