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What we know about the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka

Almost 300 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

by Alex Lubben
Apr 22 2019, 4:55pm

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

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Sri Lanka has instituted a dusk-to-dawn curfew after a series of bombings ripped through Christian churches and popular hotels in three cities on Easter Sunday, killing nearly 300 people and injuring several hundred more.

Now, as the death toll climbs, authorities have arrested 24 people in connection with the attacks and have identified a little-known Islamist group as responsible, though no group has yet claimed responsibility.

Authorities have also shut down social media sites in an effort to curb the spread of disinformation, the Sri Lankan president’s secretary, Udaya Seneviratne, said in a brief statement.

Here’s what we know about the attacks so far:

COORDINATED EXPLOSIONS

What authorities believe to have been coordinated suicide attacks took place in a series of bombings across the country. Authorities said on Monday that six suicide bombers carried out the attacks.

  • In the capital of Colombo, three bombings happened simultaneously at 8:45 a.m. local time, and another five minutes later. A fifth bomb went off later in the day.
  • A bomb blew through St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Roman Catholic church, while worshippers attended mass.
  • At the same time, explosions went off at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo.
  • Five minutes later, a bomb struck another Colombo hotel, the Cinnamon Grand.
  • Later in the afternoon, a bomb went off at the Tropical Inn, a smaller hotel in the city’s outskirts.
  • As the police were searching for suspects at the Dematagoda housing complex in eastern Colombo, the suspects appear to have detonated another bomb, killing three police officers, according to Sri Lankan officials. The cops found more bombs stashed away at the residence.
  • In Negombo, a coastal town north of Colombo, one bomb exploded at a church, killing at least 104 people, according to the New York Times. Another was discovered and defused before it exploded at the nearby Bandaranaike International Airport.
  • On the other side of the country, in the east coast city of Batticaloa, a bomb went off at Zion Church, around 9:05 a.m., and the local hospital received about 300 injured people following the explosion, according to the Guardian.

Police in Colombo also blew up a suspicious van in a controlled explosion, and they found 87 detonators at the capital’s main bus station, according to Reuters. Authorities are continuing to look for more undetonated explosives.

1555949339960-AP_19112432164428A Sri Lankan woman living near St. Anthony's shrine runs for safety with her infant after police found explosive devices in a parked vehicle in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings that ripped through churches and luxury hotels killed more than 200 people. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
A Sri Lankan woman living near St. Anthony's shrine runs for safety with her infant after police found explosive devices in a parked vehicle in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings that ripped through churches and luxury hotels killed more than 200 people. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

CHRISTIANS AND TOURISTS TARGETED

The bombings ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Sunday as Christians gathered to celebrate Easter. As of Monday morning, the death toll stood at 290, with an additional 500 people injured. Sri Lankan authorities have not yet confirmed how many people had been killed at each location that was attacked.

At least 39 of the victims were tourists. The Sri Lankan tourism minister, John Amaratunga said authorities had identified victims from the U.S., Japan, Britain, Australia, China, Japan, and Portugal.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?

At least 10 days before the bombings, the Sri Lankan government received intelligence that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath were planning attacks against churches, but they took no action. Now the government is under fire for allowing a massive intelligence failure by not acting on those tips.

But it's far from clear that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a small local group that has largely targeted Buddhist places of worship with vandalism, is capable of such a wide-scale terror attack. A series of bombings like the ones that took place over the weekend requires a massive logistical lift — bomb-making workshops, handlers to keep bombers committed, and an extensive planning network to keep the detonations coordinated.

“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told reporters, according to the Washington Post. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

As the news broke that the government had been warned of the possibility of attacks in the days prior to the bombings, the president was quick to say that he had not personally been warned.

“We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?” said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, according to the Associated Press.

Relatives weep near the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church, Monday, April 22, 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Relatives weep near the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church, Monday, April 22, 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

CURFEWS AND CRACKDOWNS

In response to the attacks, the Sri Lankan government will institute a national emergency starting at midnight on Monday, and for the last two nights, it has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the nation’s capital. The newly declared national emergency will afford the military wartime powers to detain and question suspects in the attacks without warrants.

In an extraordinary measure to try to curb the spread of misinformation, the government has also shut down major social networks like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp. The weekend’s attacks were not immediately linked to any activity on social media, but the country has wrestled with the role of social networking in politics. Posts that circulated on Facebook last year are credited with stoking anti-Muslim hatred that led to riots and lynchings.

A BLOODY HISTORY

Between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka was ravaged by a civil war. During that time, terror attacks were relatively common, with many attacks attributed to the group known as the Tamil Tigers, who were the Hindu government’s antagonists in the war, though the group was avowedly secular.

The war had its roots in the country’s colonial history. British, who ruled over Sri Lanka until 1948, were seen as favoring the country’s Tamil minority. When the Sinahelese took over, they disenfranchised the Tamil plantation workers and made Sinhala the country’s official language.

But since the war’s end, the country’s been enjoying a period of relative peace and had even experienced a tourism boom. More than 200 million people visited Sri Lanka in 2018 alone, according to the New York Times.

But political tensions have rippled up to the seats of power in recent years. The country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, sought to have the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, deposed in October of last year. That resulted in actual blows on the floor of parliament, where legislators hurled chairs and chili powder at one another. It also led to conflict in the streets, with a Sri Lankan minister’s bodyguard shooting a protester dead in the days following the prime minister’s ouster.

Sunday’s attacks are the most violent attacks the country has seen since the end of the war. In their wake, the U.S. and Australia increased their travel advisories, and the U.S. State Department warned of the possibility of more violence.

Cover image: A suspicious object explodes without warning while the police was processing in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 22, 2019 (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images). Body: A Sri Lankan woman living near St. Anthony's shrine runs for safety with her infant after police found explosive devices in a parked vehicle in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019 (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena); Relatives weep near the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe).