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Sri Lanka Easter attacks: Government says Islamist extremist group behind slaughter of almost 300

The government is investigating whether the group had “international support”.

St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo after yesterday's attack.
St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo after yesterday's attack.
Image: Eranga Jayawardena/PA Images

Updated Apr 22nd 2019, 11:08 AM

THE SRI LANKAN government believes a local Islamist extremist group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) was behind the deadly suicide bomb attacks that killed nearly 300 people

Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne added that the government was investigating whether the group had “international support”.

“We don’t see that only a small organisation in this country can do all that,” he said.

“We are now investigating the international support for them, and their other links, how they produced the suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this.”

Documents seen by AFP show Sri Lanka’s police chief issued a warning on 11 April, saying that a “foreign intelligence agency” had reported NTJ was planning attacks on churches and the Indian high commission.

Not much is known about the NTJ, a radical Muslim group that his been linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues.

A police source told AFP that all 24 people in custody in connection with the attacks belong to an “extremist” group, but did not specify further. 

The death toll in the series of eight blasts that targeted mostly churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has risen to 290.

More than 500 people were wounded in the blasts, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera added, in the deadliest violence since the end of the country’s long-running civil war a decade ago.

Police have now arrested 24 people in connection with the blasts, Gunasekera added.

The powerful explosions struck in quick succession at three hotels in the capital Colombo. The Cinnamon Grand was hit at around 8:30 am, and the high-end Shangri-La soon after at 9:05 am.

Three churches were also targeted in that wave of blasts: Colombo’s historic St Anthony’s Shrine, the St Sebastian’s church in the town of Negombo — north of the capital — and the Zion Church in the east-coast town of Batticaloa.

Hours later, there were two more blasts — one of them at another Colombo hotel. At least two of the eight were carried out by suicide bombers, according to police sources and a hotel official.

The blasts hit the churches when they were full of worshippers gathered for Easter services. 

Police have said 35 foreigners were among the dead, including British, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and American citizens, with the US and the UK later confirming their nationals were killed.

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj added three Indians were killed.

A Portuguese man also died, according to the Iberian nation’s LUSA news agency. Two Chinese nationals were injured, the country’s embassy in Sri Lanka said, according to Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency.

Civil war

The island nation has suffered deadly militant attacks for years, especially by ethnic Tamil militants during a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009 when Sri Lankan forces crushed the insurgency.

In recent years, there have been clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, and in March last year the government imposed a 12-day state of emergency to quell anti-Muslim riots.

Christian groups have also complained of increased harassment from hardline Buddhist groups.

(SPOT NEWS)SRI LANKA-COLOMBO-BLASTS The blast scene in St. Anthony's Church. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Memories

For many Sri Lankans, the attacks brought back painful memories of a conflict that lasted three decades and killed as many as 100,000 people.

During those years, bomb attacks were a regular occurrence, and left many Sri Lankans on edge in the streets and on public transport.

As Shantha Prasad carried children wounded from the attacks into a Colombo hospital, he said memories of the country’s deadly civil war flooded back.

“I carried about eight wounded children yesterday,” he told AFP on Monday, a day after a string of blasts hit hotels and churches, killing nearly 300 people.

“There were two girls aged six and eight, the same age as my daughters,” said Prasad, who helps carry stretchers into the hospital’s triage area and wards.

“Their clothes were torn and drenched in blood. It is unbearable to see this kind of violence again.”

International reaction

Pope Francis expressed his sadness over the attacks during his traditional Easter address at the Vatican.

“I want to express my affectionate closeness with the Christian community, attacked while it was at prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Jerusalem had said in an earlier statement: “We pray for the souls of the victims and ask for speedy recovery of the injured, and ask God to inspire the terrorists to repent of their killing and intimidation.”

A month after dozens of Muslims were killed in a shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the Sri Lanka attack as “devastating”.

New Zealand condemns all acts of terrorism, and our resolve has only been strengthened by the attack on our soil on the 15th of March.

“To see an attack in Sri Lanka while people were in churches and at hotels is devastating.”

US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Heartfelt condolences from the people of the United States to the people of Sri Lanka on the horrible terrorist attacks on churches and hotels.

“We stand ready to help!”

“We strongly condemn these odious acts,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter and in Paris, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were dimmed in tribute to the victims.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement published on Twitter that “religious hate and intolerance that have showed themselves in such a terrible way today must not win”.

“The acts of violence against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka are truly appalling,” British Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted.

© – AFP 2019

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