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Sri Lankan elderly woman is helped near St. Anthony's Shrine after a blast in Colombo

207 people killed and hundreds injured after explosions strike hotels and churches in Sri Lanka

Eight people have now been arrested over the attacks.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Apr 2019

THE DEATH TOLL from a series of devastating bomb blasts which struck a number of hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka has risen to 207, local police have said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the attacks – the worst act of violence since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war a decade ago – as “cowardly” and said the government was working to “contain the situation”.

The powerful blasts – six in quick succession and then two more hours later – wrought devastation, including at St Anthony’s Shrine, a historic Catholic Church, in the capital Colombo.

Dozens of foreigners have also been killed. Hospital sources said British, Dutch and American citizens were among the 207 dead, with Britons and Japanese also injured.

A Portuguese man also died, the country’s LUSA news agency reported.

An AFP photographer at the scene at St Anthony’s saw bodies lying on the floor, some draped with scarves and clothes.

Much of the church roof was blown out in the explosion, with roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor.

It’s believed that 407 people have been injured in the blasts. Eight people have now been arrested, Wickremesinghe said this afternoon. “So far the names that have come up are local,” but that investigators would look into whether the attackers had any “overseas links,” he said. 

He also acknowledged that “information was there” about possible attacks.

“While this goes on we must also look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” he said.

But he said the government’s first priority would be to “apprehend the terrorists.”

“First and foremost we have to ensure that terrorism does not lift its head in Sri Lanka.”

ADDITION Sri Lanka Church Blasts An image from video provided by Hiru TV shows damage inside St. Anthony's Shrine after a blast in Colombo AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Suicide bombers

The injured flooded into local hospitals, where officials reported hundreds of wounded were being admitted.

The nature of the blasts was not immediately clear and there were no immediate claims of responsibility.

But documents seen by AFP show that Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches”.

“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” the alert said.

The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues.

(SPOT NEWS)SRI LANKA-COLOMBO-BLASTS Security staff stand on guard outside the St. Anthony's Church where a blast took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

The first blast was reported at St Anthony’s Shrine, before a second deadly explosion was then confirmed at St Sebastian’s, a church in the town of Negombo, north of the capital.

“A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there,” read a post in English on the church’s Facebook page.

Soon after, police confirmed that a third church in the town of Batticaloa had been hit, along with three high-end hotels in the capital.

A manager at the Cinnamon Grand, near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, said a suicide bomber blew himself up at the hotel’s restaurant.

“He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast,” he told AFP.

Later in the afternoon, two died in a strike at a hotel in the south of Colombo, while a police source said a suicide bomber killed three officers in the suburb of Orugodawatta in the north of the capital.

On Twitter, Wickremesinghe wrote: “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. 

“I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”

Freedom of worship

President Michael D Higgins condemned the attacks this morning and expressed his condolences to the dead on behalf of the people of Ireland.

“As President of Ireland I am sure that people in Ireland will have heard with great concern of the heavy loss of life that has happened at places of worship in Sri Lanka, at a time of religious significance,” he said in a statement.

“The right to the freedom of worship is a fundamental right. To the families of those who died and those who have been injured I send the sympathies and solidarity of the people of Ireland.”

Sri Lanka Church Blasts Sri Lankans caught up in one of eight bomb blasts to hit the Asian country Eranga Jayawardena / PA Images Eranga Jayawardena / PA Images / PA Images

The Tánaiste also condemned the attacks as “appalling” and said there was no political or justifiable reason for the killing of people going about their daily lives.

He also expressed sympathy to the families of those who had been killed and offered support for the injured.

“On behalf of the government of Ireland I also express our solidarity with the people and government of Sri Lanka at this tremendously difficult time,” he said in a statement.

“Ireland strongly supports everyone’s freedom of religion and belief. Attacks such as those in Sri Lanka today and in Christchurch and elsewhere are a challenge to us all to do everything that we can to defend that right.

“Places of worship must be places of peace, free from fear.”

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences on the “horrible terrorist attacks”, and Pope Francis in his Easter address at the Vatican spoke of his “affectionate closeness with the Christian community, attacked while it was at prayer”.

With reporting from - © AFP 2019

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