Sri Lankan authorities confirmed that it now has arrested 24 individuals in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks across the nation that have now claimed 290 lives and injured at least another 500 people.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told Agence France Presse on April 22 that the number of people under police custody was 24, up from the 13 there were arrested as of Easter Sunday.
The government has chosen not to disclose the identity of the suspects linked to the attacks in a move to prevent them from getting any publicity.
“Don’t give extremists a voice. Don’t help to make them martyrs,” State Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, told reporters when he was asked for details of those in custody by local media.
Wijewardene described those in police custody as religious extremists, adding that no group had come forward to claim responsibility for the attacks.
The eight blasts that rocked the Indian Ocean island on Easter Sunday is the first major attack since the end of a decades-long civil war between the Marxist Tamil Tigers organization and the government in 2009.
“At least 26 dead bodies are inside Kochchikade Church according to the Police, We are shocked, PM is charing an emergency meeting” Minister Mano Ganeshan after visiting ST.Anthony’s church in Kochchikade, Colombo pic.twitter.com/eHZ5Di0LyE
— Azzam Ameen (@AzzamAmeen) April 21, 2019
Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, said in 2009 that the Tamil Tigers were suicide bomb innovators.
“The Tamil Tigers are a purely secular suicide terrorist group. They’re not a group that most of the listeners will have heard too much about because even though they’re actually the world leader in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003, carrying out more suicide attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” he said at the time.
Dead Bodies All Around
The first six explosions were all reported within a short period in the morning just as church services were starting around 8:30 a.m.
One of the explosions was at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church in Kochcikade, Colombo—a tourist landmark.
Two more explosions were seen at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, and Zion Church in Batticaloa, east of Colombo.
One witness who lost his brother at St. Sebastian’s Church told AFP: “We are all in shock. We don’t want the country to go back to that dark past where we had to live in fear of suicide blasts all the time,” he said of the horrors of the civil war. At that time, bomb blasts in the capital Colombo were common.
The hotels hit in Colombo were the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury, the Cinnamon Grand. There was no word on the number of casualties in the hotels, although emergency responders were seen transporting bodies.
Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – Terrorism has no Religion. pic.twitter.com/xhjjkJej8W
— Mevan Peiris (@MevanPeiris) April 22, 2019
One Australian survivor, identified only as Sam, told Australia’s 3AW radio the Shangri-La was a scene of “absolute carnage.”
He said he and a travel partner were having breakfast at the hotel when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.
“There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said. “Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don’t know if they were dead or not, just crazy.”
The seventh explosion at the Tropical Inn guest house near the national zoo in Dehiwala happened later. A witness told local TV he saw some body parts, including a severed head, lying on the ground beside the Tropical Inn.
Three police officers were also killed in the eighth explosion as they raided a house in Colombo, which lead to multiple arrests.
“I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong,” said Sri Lanka’s prime minister in a Tweet.
I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. 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.
— Ranil Wickremesinghe (@RW_UNP) April 21, 2019
“Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”
Speaker of the Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, said on April 22: “Multiple cowardly attacks this morning were not against any religion or ethnic group, but the whole Sri Lankan nation, bound together by friendship and brotherhood. In this difficult time, let us stand stronger to wipe out these heinous forces from our country, whoever they are.”
Multiple cowardly attacks this morning were not against any religion or ethnic group, but the whole Sri Lankan nation, bound together by friendship and brotherhood. In this difficult time, let us stand stronger to wipe out these heinous forces from our country, whoever they are. pic.twitter.com/n31N5GVTbG
— Karu Jayasuriya (@KaruOnline) April 21, 2019
President Maithripala 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. Schools, universities and the Colombo Stock Exchange will be closed on Monday as the island state tries to recover from the attacks.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe had revealed on April 21 that he had learned that intelligence and police had some “prior information of the attack” involving a little known local Islamist group, though ministers, including him, had not been told.
Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. What my father heard was also from an intelligence officer. Serious action need to be taken as to why this warning was ignored. I was in Badulla last night pic.twitter.com/ssJyItJF1x
— Harin Fernando (@fernandoharin) April 21, 2019
He said that there hadn’t been an adequate response to the information and there will now be an inquiry into how the information was used.
He also said the government would look at the international links of a local religious extremist group, and that world leaders had offered their assistance with the investigation.
AFP 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.”
A Sri Lanka police spokesman said he was not aware of the intelligence report.
The heads of major governments condemned the attacks.
U.S. President Donald Trump said America offered “heartfelt condolences” to the Sri Lankan people and stood ready to help, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said there was “no place for such barbarism in our region,” and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the bombings were “an assault on all of humanity.”
.@POTUS and I are monitoring the horrific attacks on those celebrating Easter in Sri Lanka. Our hearts & prayers are with the victims & their families. This atrocity is an attack on Christianity & religious freedom everywhere. No one should ever be in fear in a house of worship.
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 21, 2019
Pope Francis, addressing people in St. Peter’s Square, said: “I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”
Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day after his death on the cross.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, where a gunman shot 50 people dead in two mosques last month, said in a statement: “Collectively we must find the will and the answers to end such violence.”
Reuters contributed to this report