Bomb Blasts Kill Over 200 People in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -
Sri Lankan military stand guard near the explosion site in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, Sunday. (Reuters/Stringer)

More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in eight bomb blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Sunday — the deadliest violence the South Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects were arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Wijewardena said most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

The explosions at three churches and three hotels — most of them in or around Colombo, the capital — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing people and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms. Victims were carried out of blood-spattered pews.

Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners from a variety of countries were recovered. The U.S. said “several” American were among the dead, while Britain, China and Portugal said they, too, lost citizens.

The Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and blocked social media, saying it needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said at least 207 people were killed and 450 wounded. He said police found a safe house and a van used by the attackers.

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Buddhist-majority country. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

Sri Lanka, situated off the southern tip of India, is about 70 percent Buddhist, with the rest of the population Muslim, Hindu or Christian. While there have been scattered incidents of anti-Christian harassment in recent years, there has been nothing on the scale of what happened Sunday.

There is also no history of violent Muslim terrorists in Sri Lanka.

Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning in Colombo. After a lull of a few hours, two more explosions occurred at in Negombo, a town 23 miles north of Colombo, and in the town of Batticaloa, about 190 miles to the east.

Three police officers were killed while conducting a search at a suspected safe house in Dematagoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, Wijewardena said.

Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, ending a civil war that took over 100,000 lives, with both sides accused of grave human rights violations.