Sri Lankan officials walk by bodies amid blast debris at St Anthony's Shrine after the bombing at the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ishara S Kodikara

A series of eight devastating bomb blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka on Sunday, killing at least 290 people, including dozens of foreigners.

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,” as the government imposed an immediate and indefinite curfew across the entire country of 21 million people.

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

Ambulances are seen following a blast at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade, Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP

At least two of the explosions were carried out by suicide bombers, according to police sources and a hotel official.

A police spokesman updated the death toll early on Monday, saying it had risen dramatically to 290 killed, with a further 500 wounded.

Earlier, police revealed that an improvised bomb had been found at the main airport in Colombo had been defused.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but police said on Monday that 24 people had been arrested, AFP reported.

Probe into ‘failure to act’

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged that “information was there” about possible attacks and that an investigation would look into “why adequate precautions were not taken”.

The government said the dead included at least 37 foreigners, including five Indians, three Americans, three Britons, three Danes, two from Turkey and one Dutch national, plus a Portuguese. Two people holding both British and US passports were also among the fatalities.

“Additionally, while nine foreign nationals are reported missing, there are 25 unidentified bodies believed to be of foreigners,” the foreign ministry said. Most of the bodies of suspected foreign nationals were at the Colombo National Hospital.

A police official said earlier that 35 foreigners were among the dead and hospital sources said British, Dutch and American citizens had been killed, with Britons and Japanese also injured. A Portuguese man and two Chinese citizens were among the dead, news agencies in their countries reported.

An injured Sri Lankan woman is transported on a stretcher at a hospital after an explosion at a church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

‘Horrible scenes’

A 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 along with pools of blood.

A. Sumanapala was at his shop near the church when the blast happened.

“I ran inside to help. The priest came out and he was covered in blood,” he said.

“It was a river of blood.”

Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard outside St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP

The blasts gutted restaurants at the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotel, and devastated the St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital.

Gabriel, who declined to give his family name, said his brother was at mass at the church when the explosion ripped through it.

“A piece of roof fell on his head, and he was bleeding heavily from his ear,” he said.

“We are all in shock. We don’t want the country to go back to that dark past where we had to live in fear of suicide blasts all the time.”

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St Anthony’s, where he described “horrible scenes”.

“I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners.”

Radical Muslim group

While there were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts, 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 vandalization of Buddhist statues.

The government ordered an immediate nationwide curfew “until further notice”, and a “temporary” social media ban “in order to prevent incorrect and wrong information being spread”.

The first blast was reported at St Anthony’s, followed by a second deadly explosion at St Sebastian’s in Negombo.

Soon after, police confirmed that a third church in the east-coast town of Batticaloa had been hit, along with three high-end hotels in the capital – the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury.

Bomb damage at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP

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 said.

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.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (C) visits the bomb damage at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: Ishara S Kodikara / AFP

‘Cowardly attacks’

President Maithripala Sirisena said in an address that he was shocked by the explosions and appealed for calm.

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.”

The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, described those behind the attacks as “animals” and called on the authorities to “punish them mercilessly.”

Sri Lankan security personnel and police investigators look through blast debris outside Zion Church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

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.”

Embassies in Colombo warned their citizens to shelter in place, and Sri Lankan Airlines told customers to arrive at the airport four hours ahead of flights because of ramped-up security in the wake of the attacks.

Only around 6% of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.

There have been no attacks in Sri Lanka linked to foreign Islamist groups, despite local media reports that a Sri Lankan was killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group.

In January, Sri Lankan police seized a haul of explosives and detonators following the arrest of four men from a newly formed radical Muslim group.

– Reporting from AFP

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