COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – 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 at least 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 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 told 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, as of Sunday evening. Police also said they had seized an abandoned white minivan from Colombo’s southern outskirts that they believed was used to ferry attackers.