Sri Lanka bombings: Government reveals suicide attackers including man who queued calmly for breakfast responsible for deadly blasts that killed hundreds

Adam Withnall, Qadijah Irshad
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Sri Lanka bombings: Government reveals suicide attackers including man who queued calmly for breakfast responsible for deadly blasts that killed hundreds

The six coordinated hotel and church attacks in Sri Lanka which killed nearly 300 people were carried out by a local militant group with international support, senior government officials have said.

Seven suicide bombers carried out the attacks between 8.30am and 9.30am on Sunday at three five-star hotels and three Catholic churches, according to forensic analyses of the blast sites.

"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," Senaratne said. "There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded."

A number of police officers were killed in two explosions later during raids on premises linked to the suspected bombers.

The president of Sri Lanka met with his security council on Monday morning, 24 hours after the blasts that killed at least 290 people and injured more than 450, the majority at sites across the capital Colombo.

Dozens of foreign nationals are understood to be among those killed, including at least eight Britons, according to Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry. The hotels targeted, including the luxury Shangri-La, are among the largest and most popular among tourists in the capital.

At midday on Monday local time, forensic teams were still present at at least four of the Colombo bomb sites. Officials say they believe there were seven attackers, but their identities remain unconfirmed and the government has restricted the use of social media in a bid to stop the spread of rumours.

The six attacks were conducted all within a short time window on Sunday morning, as hotel guests were having breakfast and church-goers were attending Easter Sunday masses.

At St Anthony’s church in Colombo, chief priest Jude Fernando told The Independent he believed a suicide bomber had targeted the back of the church where large numbers of people were standing for the final prayers of the service.

Father Jude was by the side of the main altar when the bomb rang out at 8.45am. There were 1,000 to 1,500 people in the church at the time.

“There were so many people inside, we didn’t know what was going on. 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.”

Though 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 and the corridor outside.

Well over 100 guests were in the restaurant having breakfast at 9.05am when the attack took place, The Independent has learned. The damage is so extensive it can be seen from the main road, with every window blown out and the ceiling collapsed by the force of the two explosions. Forensic teams continued to pick through the mangled mess of plush chairs and dining tables.

At the Cinnamon Grand, the second-largest hotel hit, a security official who asked not to be named said around 50 people were having breakfast when an explosion ripped through the restaurant there.

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, the AFP news agency quoted a hotel manager 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. Staff brought injured guests to hospital, not waiting for ambulances to arrive.

He said the attack was “devastating”, describing 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.”

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. Three police officers were killed in one of the explosions.

A curfew was in place after nightfall on Sunday and the streets were eerily deserted. Army checkpoints were dotted across the highways to the west of the island nation, and many people were stranded at the international airport, near to which an unexploded pipe bomb was found late in the evening.

It is the worst violence to hit Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Since then, the country has built up a hard-won reputation for being a safe haven for tourism, and visitor numbers have surged, boosting the economy.

With Sunday’s blasts leading to travel warnings from other countries, including the US and UK, the government is making every effort to conduct a swift investigation and present itself as in control of the security situation. Army officers at checkpoints were apologetic, asking that “no hard feelings” be borne for the inconvenience.

But questions will inevitably 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 received warnings in advance.

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.

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.