A string of eight blasts hit the country with three churches in Kochchikade, Negombo and Batticaloa targeted during Easter services about 8.45am.
In one church, St Sebastian’s in Negombo, more than 50 people were killed, according to a police official, while 25 others died in the attack on a church in Batticaloa.
At St Sebastian’s, the attacker – said by Sri Lankan police to be a suicide bomber – was thought to have entered the building shortly after the final prayer before detonating. St Sebastian’s posted pictures of destruction inside the church on its Facebook page, showing blood on pews and the floor and asking for help from the public.
“It felt like there was an earthquake,” said Vijaya Kumar, a 36-year-old worshipper who was attending the Easter service at St Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade, just outside Colombo. “Everything shook and fell, I was lucky because I was near a door. I ran out. I was terrified.”
Meanwhile, the Shangri La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury luxury hotels, all in the capital Colombo, were also hit. As special task force and forensic teams teemed the bloodied bombed sites, hotel staff of the Cinnamon Grand said a suicide bomber blew himself up in the hotel’s restaurant.
Three hours later a seventh explosion hit a hotel in Dehiwala, Colombo, near the national zoo. At least four people died, according to police.
An eighth blast was reported just moments afterwards at a housing complex in the suburb of Dematagoda in Colombo. Three police officers were killed while investigating a tip-off from neighbours. “The explosion came from the upper floor of the house,” said a witness.
A 6ft pipe bomb was reportedly found near Colombo’s main airport, but safely disposed of.
Sri Lanka’s defence minister confirmed 24 people had been arrested, while police said the death toll had soared overnight from 200 to 290.
The government has acknowledged that it had “prior information” of planned attacks on churches involving a little-known local Islamist group but did not do enough about it, in an apparent intelligence blunder.
A well-known TV chef and her daughter were the first named victims of the attack. Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter Nisanga had been staying at the Shangri-La hotel when it was targeted.
Ms Mayadunne’s daughter shared a group photo on Facebook on the morning of the bombings, with the caption: “Easter breakfast with family.” According to her Facebook page, Nisanga had studied at the University of London.
At least five Britons were also confirmed dead by the country’s ministry of foreign affairs. Three were from the UK and two held dual US and UK citizenship.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo confirmed that “several” American citizens were among those killed in a statement condemning the attacks. “These vile attacks are a stark reminder of why the United States remains resolved in our fight to defeat terrorism,” he added.
Three people from India were also killed, along with one from Portugal, and two from Turkey. A Dutch national and a Chinese national were also reported as among the victims.
The British high commissioner to Sri Lanka, James Dauris, visited British victims in hospital yesterday. Mr Dauris, who was at a church service with his family in Colombo when it was cut short by the attacks, said: “I’ve been speaking this afternoon with Brits in hospital who have been affected by today’s senseless attacks.
“My team’s and my thoughts go out to all those people who are suffering as a result of the deplorable violence Sri Lanka has witnessed this Easter Sunday.”