Security personnel react as a device is detonated in a van near the St. Anthony’s Church shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka.(M.A. Pushpa Kumara / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
Security personnel stand near where a device was detonated April 22 in a van in Colombo, one day after devastating bombings in Sri Lanka killed nearly 300 people.(M.A. Pushpa Kumara / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
Sri Lankans are evacuated April 22 after a van was found parked with a suspected explosive device near St. Anthony’s church, which was among targets of the devastating Easter Sunday explosions.(M.A. Pushpa Kumara / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
A Sri Lankan woman living near St. Anthony’s Shrine hurries away with her infant after police find a device in a parked van in Colombo on April 22. The device was exploded, and there were no casualties.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)
People pray outside the St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, a day after the building was hit as part of a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.(Mohd Rasfan / AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers secure an area near St. Anthony’s Shrine on April 22. A device found in a van was detonated one day after a series of bomb blasts targeted churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.(Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)
Sri Lankan security personnel pass bodies covered with blankets amid blast debris at St. Anthony’s Shrine.(Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP/Getty Images)
Sri Lankan soldiers secure the area after an explosion at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.(Rohan Karunarathne / Associated Press)
Sri Lankan soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony’s Shrine after an April 21 explosion in Colombo.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)
A victim’s relative weeps outside a hospital in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday bombings.(Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP/Getty Images)
An injured Sri Lankan woman is moved on a hospital stretcher after an explosion at a Batticaloa church.(Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP/Getty Images)
Security personnel and investigators look through debris outside Zion Church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka after an explosion April 21.(Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of bombing victims mourn as they wait outside a hospital mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)
A Sri Lankan police officer and a local stand outside St. Anthony’s Shrine after an explosion April 21.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)
A Sri Lankan woman is helped near St. Anthony’s Shrine after an explosion in Colombo.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)
Women grieve after an explosion in Colombo in an image from Derena TV.(Associated Press)
Sri Lankan firefighters work the scene after an explosion at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)
Police cordon off the area after an explosion at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.(M.A. Pushpa Kumara / EPA-EFE/REX)
A mother and daughter, in their Sunday best, took a taxi to Easter Mass on Sunday morning at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a stately Catholic church near the heart of the Sri Lankan capital. Their driver, P. Ranasinghe, was parked a few feet away having tea when a thunderous explosion shook the 19th century church.
The next thing he heard were the screams of worshipers racing out of the colonnaded doorways as black smoke poured from the church. Ranasinghe remembered seeing red — the bloodstains spread across the clothing of the congregants, most of them women, as they fled.
His two passengers survived; they were among the fortunate. The explosion at one of the country’s most beloved Christian sites was one of six blasts that ripped through churches and luxury hotels minutes apart on Easter Sunday morning, leaving 290 people dead and wounding at least 500 in Sri Lanka’s deadliest day of violence since the end of a long civil war a decade ago.
At least 27 of those killed at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels were foreign nationals, said officials, who had determined that most of the six attacks were suicide bombings. Among the victims were “several U.S. citizens,” said Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, in a statement.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter morning,” Pompeo said. “Attacks on 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, and demonstrate yet again the brutal nature of radical terrorists whose sole aim is to threaten peace and security.”
Explosions targeted Easter services at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Negombo, a Catholic town north of Colombo, the seaside capital, and at a Protestant church in Batticaloa, on the island nation’s eastern coast. The violence battered a small and beleaguered Christian community in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country that has often struggled to protect its religious minorities.
Bombs also exploded around the same time in the restaurants of three five-star hotels in Colombo, symbols of the economic boom Sri Lanka has enjoyed since the war ended — becoming better known for its sparkling Indian Ocean beaches and piquant food than for separatist violence.
“Horrible scenes. I saw many body parts strewn all over,” tweeted Harsha de Silva, the minister of economic reforms, who visited St. Anthony’s and the Shangri-La soon after the attacks.
Two other blasts occurred later Sunday on Colombo’s southern outskirts as police searched a suspected safe house.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said late Sunday that intelligence officials had received information about a possible attack but indicated that his government had not been informed of the threat.
“We must look as to why adequate precautions were not taken,” Wickremesinghe said at a news briefing. In an earlier statement, he had called for national unity and described the attacks as “an attempt to make the country and its economy unstable.”
Sri Lankan authorities said they had arrested 24 suspects. Police also said they had seized an abandoned white minivan from Colombo’s southern outskirts that they believed was used to ferry attackers.
“There is no room for any sort of extremism in the country, and we will take necessary action to stop such groups from operating in Sri Lanka,” Ruwan Wijewardene, the junior defense minister, said at a news conference in Colombo.
“The police are currently conducting investigations, and all culprits will be taken into custody as soon as possible.”
The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said it was “a very, very sad day for all of us.”
“I call upon all to pray,” Ranjith said, “that all those who are injured may be healed soon and that all these families who have lost someone may be consoled.”
All Masses in Colombo were canceled, and police declared a nationwide curfew. The government also blocked Facebook, WhatsApp and the Viber communications app, apparently to block the spread of rumors and fake news after the attacks.
Expressions of sympathy poured in from leaders around the world. Pope Francis, giving his traditional Easter Sunday blessing at St. Peter’s Basilica, expressed his “loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer.”
“I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event,” Francis added.
At the Shangri-La hotel on Colombo’s renowned Galle Road, a sea-facing highway dotted by high-end hotels, embassies and colonial-era government buildings, singer Sarita Marlou said she was sleeping in a room on the 17th floor when she felt the force of the blast. Everyone inside was ordered to evacuate, and when Marlou raced down the stairwell to the exit she “saw a lot of blood on the floor but we were still clueless as to what really happened,” according to a post she wrote on Facebook.
Another guest, Mar Silverio, wrote that he was “terrified to see a lot of hotel staff carrying wounded colleagues, guests and some bloody bodies on stretchers to the waiting ambulance.”
Gory images of mangled limbs and bloodied pews filled the airwaves in the small island nation off the southern tip of India, triggering memories among some of the worst days of the 26-year civil war between government forces controlled by the Sinhalese ethnic majority and Tamil separatists.
At the time, human rights groups also accused government forces of killing and abducting masses of rebels and Tamil civilians, especially in the closing weeks of the war under the leadership of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka emerged from the conflict and began to rebuild its economy, but ethnic and religious chauvinism also began to take root among hard-liners in the Sinhalese Buddhist community, which makes up about three-quarters of the country’s 21 million people.
Much of the violence has targeted Muslims, the largest religious minority, which helped unseat Rajapaksa at the polls in 2015. But the unstable coalition government that followed has also failed to protect minorities. Last year, Buddhist extremists led riots against Muslim-owned businesses and mosques in the hill city of Kandy, leaving two people dead.
St. Anthony’s, perhaps the most iconic church in the country, has been declared a national shrine and visited by Sri Lankans of all faiths. It is said that a piece of St. Anthony’s tongue is kept in a glass case at the church’s entrance, along with a statue of the saint.
Mario Gomez, executive director of the International Center for Ethnic Studies, a Colombo think tank, said Sunday’s attacks were unprecedented for Sri Lanka, even with its history of religious turmoil, and aimed to send a global message.
“We’ve seen attacks on Muslims and Christians orchestrated by local groups,” Gomez said. “But this violence is of a qualitatively different nature. In terms of scale and magnitude, we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Special correspondent Mushtaq reported from Colombo and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore.