Sri Lanka bombings ‘an attack on heart of country’ as major questions remain

Adam Withnall

Panic returned to the streets of Colombo on Monday as police narrowed in on the suspects behind the Easter Sunday bombings that killed at least 290 people, including eight Britons.

While hundreds were still being treated in hospital and forensics teams picked through the wreckage at three major churches and three international hotels, a boom rang out at 4pm that could be heard across the city.

The explosion was just outside St Anthony’s Shrine, one of the worst hit of Sunday’s targets, as an army bomb disposal team detonated a van that had been used by an attacker and was itself laden with three devices.

Police had tried to move members of the public back but clearly word had not spread fast enough. People screamed and cried out in fear as a panicked crowd ran in all directions, fearing yet another attack was under way. It remains unclear whether anyone was injured in the chaos.

With the army handed sweeping powers to arrest and question suspects, and the streets deserted for a second balmy night of an 8pm curfew, Sri Lankans described it as a return to the dark days of the civil war, but with a new sectarian twist.

For while the conflict with the Tamil Tigers that ended in 2009 had its share of accusations of atrocities, the use of suicide bombers to target Christian civilians attending mass is new.

Seven suicide bombers hit the six main targets, police said on Monday, and 24 suspects are in custody for questioning. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, although a government minister, citing a warning circulated before Sunday by the intelligence agencies, named a relatively unheard of radical Islamist group called National Thowheed Jamath as the prime suspects.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, urban development minister Rauff Hakeem said such “a horrendous crime, committed in such sophisticated, coordinated fashion” could not have been carried out without support from outside Sri Lanka.

He did not identify the perpetrators but, when asked whether an Isis-inspired jihadi movement was responsible, told The Independent the government “will do everything in our power to root out this evil ideology”.

At St Anthony’s Shrine witnesses were still coming to terms with the events of Sunday morning and a steady stream of clergy from across the country came to offer prayers.

Chief priest Jude Fernando told The Independent he believed a suicide bomber had deliberately targeted the back of the church just as large number of people stood for the final prayers of the service. He estimated as many as 1,500 people were inside attending mass.

He was standing by the side of the main altar when the bomb rang out at 8.45am – damaged by the power of the blast, the church’s clock tower remained stuck on Monday at the precise time of the attack.

“There were so many people inside, we didn’t know what was going on,” Father Jude said. “There were bodies everywhere, people screaming and shouting.

“I can’t understand why the church has been targeted in this way. This is actually a place where everybody comes, regardless of religion, language, caste or creed. This is the most respected place in Sri Lanka, I would say.

“The people who have been injured and killed, they were from all parts of Sri Lanka. This is an attack on the heart of the country. We ask that people remain calm, and for the rest of the world to pray for us.”

Prabath Buddhika, 42, was stood outside the church when the blast occurred, and walks with a limp after flying debris became embedded in his right foot.

“Everything went black. When I opened my eyes … you can’t imagine what it was like. Bodies everywhere. Little children, pregnant mothers, severed legs and arms. We have never seen terror like this.”

Puvaneshwari Kandesar, 50, a Hindu mother-of-three whose next door neighbours were a family of Christians, said the church was used by people of all religions as a meeting place and for prayer. When the blast rang out, she rushed the short distance to see what had happened.

In this neighbourhood, we don’t see religion among us. We don’t think of ourselves as Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim. We are all one

Puvaneshwari Kandesar

“No one knows what became of our neighbours. We believe they have been wiped out. We were asked to identify the bodies and went to the morgue but we couldn’t tell them apart.

“In this neighbourhood, we don’t see religion among us. We don’t think of ourselves as Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim. We are all one. That is why this is affecting us so much. Every single house here is in a state of mourning now, whether they lost any members themselves or not.”

Although the large majority of the victims in Sunday’s attacks were ordinary Sri Lankans, the minister of tourism said 39 foreign nationals were also killed and another two dozen wounded.

The dead include eight Britons, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to the UK, Manisha Gunasekera, said, although as with the overall toll this number may well rise.

And while officials have refused to provide details of the death tolls at individual sites, the Shangri-La, a huge resort in what used to be the Sri Lankan defence ministry complex, was the worst hit of the three hotels.

Unlike the other attacks, two suicide bombers working together are believed to have hit the hotel’s main third-floor restaurant, where a hotel official who asked not to be named said well over 100 guests were having breakfast at 9.05am when the attack took place.

The extensive damage to the building can be seen from the main road, with every window blown out and the ceiling collapsed by the force of the two blasts. Police officials could still be seen picking through the debris of wall decorations, plush chairs and white-sheeted dining tables.

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard after police tried to defuse a bomb near St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on Monday (AFP/Getty)
A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard after police tried to defuse a bomb near St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on Monday (AFP/Getty)

At the Cinnamon Grand, the second-largest hotel that was hit, a security official said around 50 people were having breakfast when an explosion ripped through the restaurant.

A man who checked into the hotel under the name Mohamed Azzam Mohamed was queuing up for food at the buffet when he detonated a suicide vest, a hotel manager was quoted as saying.

And at The Kingsbury, 40 guests were eating breakfast when a bomb was set off at around 8.45am, manager Daminda Jayawardena said. He praised duty staff for staying calm and leading guests to safety.

As the number of injuries became apparent, staff brought the wounded guests to hospital, not waiting for ambulances to arrive.

He said the attack was “devastating”, and described the incident as an assault “on all Sri Lankans”. “The restaurant is badly damaged, but for the rest we hope to be back open tomorrow. Fingers crossed this won’t hurt tourism,” he said, an industry upon which the country’s economy is heavily reliant.

Two further blasts took place on Sunday throughout the day as police raided homes associated with suspects, one near the zoo to the south of the capital and another in a residential neighbourhood to the north.

In the northern suburb of Dematagoda, three police officers were killed when two bombs went off during a raid on a home associated with one of the suspects.

As The Independent arrived at the scene on Monday, police said some members of the Muslim family who lived at the home were also killed in the explosion, including three children. Officers carried away a shotgun in a forensics bag, and one female suspect was being detained in a police jeep.

Prayers and messages of condolence have poured in from Christian leaders around the world, including Pope Francis, who said the terror attacks were “inhuman” and “never justified”.

But inevitably, urgent questions will also be raised over how such a large-scale, coordinated attack could be allowed to take place. Late on Sunday, it emerged that intelligence officials had failed to pass on the warnings they had received to ministers.

Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he and other ministers had not been told about the “information regarding a possible attack” and that it had not been acted upon.

The urban development minister, Mr Hakeem, said he regretted that “the knowledge regarding impending attacks on churches was not related to the Archbishop [of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith]”. “If it were done in time, it could have prevented this mayhem,” he said.

The Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena visited Cardinal Ranjith at his residence and “expressed his shock, deep pain and dismay over the brutal attacks”, his office said.

A three-member emergency inquiry panel has been set up, and ordered to report to the president within two weeks. “We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” Mr Wickremesinghe said.