Colombo, Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan authorities have confirmed they had “prior information” of an imminent attack on churches, up to 10 days before the Easter Sunday bombings which claimed the lives of almost 300 people, including foreign citizens.
The death toll from the attacks on churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka has risen significantly to 290, with around 500 people injured, police said on Monday.
Sri Lankans accounted for the bulk of those killed, although government officials said 32 foreigners — including British, American, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals — died in the attacks.
DFAT said this morning that one Australian had been injured and that diplomats were offering consular assistance. It said it had no reports of any Australians being killed.
Sri Lankan Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, although there was no immediate claim of responsibility. He said most of the bombings were believed to have been suicide attacks. Thirteen people have been arrested so far.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged the Government had some “prior information of the attack”, though ministers were not told.
Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara reportedly 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, a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka] is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” the alert said.
Mr Wickremesinghe said there was not an adequate response and there needed to be an inquiry into how the information was used.
He also said the Government needed to look at the international links of a local militant group.
He cited a foreign intelligence service as reporting that a little-known Islamist group was planning attacks.
A Sri Lanka police spokesman said he was not aware of the intelligence report.
Local Christian groups said they faced increasing intimidation from some extremist Buddhist monks in recent years.
Last year, there were clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.
‘There was blood everywhere’
More than 50 people were killed in St Sebastian’s gothic-style Catholic church in Katuwapitiya, north of the capital of Colombo, a police official told Reuters, with pictures showing bodies on the ground, blood on the pews and a destroyed roof.
Media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on an evangelical church in Batticaloa in the country’s eastern province.
Police said one blast struck a hotel in Dehiwela, near Colombo, while a military spokesman confirmed another in Dematagoda on the outskirts of the capital.
Another attack targeted parishioners at St Anthony’s Shrine in central Colombo, and the Shangri-La hotel, Kingsbury Hotel and Cinnamon Grand Hotel were also hit in the city.
Eyewitnesses reported harrowing scenes from Colombo.
One Australian, identified only as Sam, told radio station 3AW the Shangri-La hotel was a scene of “absolute carnage”.
He said he and a travel partner were having breakfast at the hotel when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.
“There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said.
“Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don’t know if they were dead or not.”
“People were being dragged out,” said Bhanuka Harischandra, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company who was going to the Shangri-La for a meeting when it was bombed.
“People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.
“There was blood everywhere.”
One churchgoer, who gave their name as Sylvester, described chaotic scenes as the bombs went off.
“I heard the explosion and then the roof fell on us. We took the children and ran out from the rear door,” he said.
“But when I came to the hospital I saw my brother-in-law and son on the ground.”
Mangala Karunaratne, a Colombo resident, said the community was “in disbelief”.
“During the 30 years of civil war we had lots of explosions in Colombo,” he said.
“But it’s been 10 years of peace and we got used to that. So that’s why it’s really surprising and shocking.”
Leaders from around the world condemned the attacks.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “several” Americans were killed and that “these vile attacks are a stark reminder of why the United States remains resolved in our fight to defeat terrorism”.
“[Targeting] innocent people gathering in a place of worship or enjoying a holiday meal are affronts to the universal values and freedoms that we hold dear,” he said.
Three Indian citizens and five Britons were killed in the blasts, and Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Theresa May offered their condolences.
Sri Lankan Catholic Church Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith described it as “a very, very sad day for all of us”.
“I [would] also like to ask the Government to hold a very impartial, strong inquiry and find out who is responsible behind this act and also to punish them mercilessly because only animals can behave like that.”
Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.
“I learned with sadness and pain of the news of the grave attacks,” he said in his Easter Sunday message.
“I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”
On Twitter, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called the Sri Lankan terror attacks “an assault on all humanity”, while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described them as “a despicable crime”.
“We are all children of God; an attack on one religion is an attack on us all,” he said.
Image: Relatives of a blast victim grieve outside a morgue in Colombo