COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lankan government believes a local Islamist extremist group called the National Thowheed Jama'ath (NTJ) were the alleged attackers behind the coordinated suicide bombings that killed nearly 300 people, government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne said.
All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but authorities suspect foreign links, Senaratne said at a news conference.
Earlier, Ariyananda Welianga, a government forensic crime investigator, said an analysis of the attackers' body parts made clear that they were suicide bombers. He said most of the attacks were carried out by a single bomber, with two at Colombo's Shangri-La Hotel.
The eight bombings, Sri Lanka's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war ended a decade ago on the island nation, killed at least 290 people with more than 500 wounded, Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said Monday.
The first explosions occurred shortly before 9 a.m. on the holiest day of the year for Christians. The roof ripped off a church, and pews were splintered by the blast.
The attacks shattered a decade of peace after a bloody 25-year civil war on the island off of India's southern coast.
Words of comfort from the Pope's Easter address, even as Sri Lanka's prime minister condemned the attackers, and now word that more than a week ago, a memo from police was sent, warning intelligence officers of a possible attack by the NTJ group with prominent churches listed as the target.
Two government ministers have alluded to intelligence failures. Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando tweeted, "Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored." He said his father had heard of the possibility of an attack as well and had warned him not to enter popular churches.
And Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said his ministry's security officers had been warned by their division about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.
The police's Criminal Investigation Department, which is handling the investigation into the blasts, will look into those reports, Gunasekara said.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the attacks could have been thwarted.
"We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?" he said.
The explosions — mostly in or around Colombo, the capital — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.
A morgue worker in the town of Negombo, outside Colombo, where St. Sebastian's Church was targeted, said many bodies were hard to identify because of the extent of the injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman in Negombo who declined to provide his last name, went with his family to St. Sebastian's for Easter Mass. He said they all escaped the blast unscathed, but he remains haunted by images of bodies being taken from the sanctuary and tossed into a truck.
At the Shangri-La Hotel, a witness said "people were being dragged out" after the blast.
"There was blood everywhere," said Bhanuka Harischandra a 24-year-old from Colombo and founder of a tech marketing company. He was heading to the hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. "People didn't know what was going on. It was panic mode."
Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony's Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists, and Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 39 foreigners from a variety of countries were recovered, while another 28 were wounded.
The U.S. said "several" Americans were among the dead, while Britain, India, China, Japan and Portugal said they, too, lost citizens.
The streets were largely deserted Monday morning, with most shops closed and a heavy deployment of soldiers and police. Stunned clergy and onlookers gathered at St. Anthony's Shrine, looking past the soldiers to the stricken church.
The Sri Lankan government initially lifted a curfew that had been imposed during the night but reinstated it Monday afternoon. Most social media remained blocked Monday after officials said they needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, and he vowed to "vest all necessary powers with the defense forces" to take action against those responsible.
The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, when the Tamil Tigers, from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Sinhalese-dominated country. The Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.
Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, is about 70 percent Buddhist. In recent years, tensions have been running high between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.
Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.
Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning at the shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, as well as at two churches outside Colombo.
A few hours later, two more blasts occurred just outside Colombo, one at a guesthouse where two people were killed, the other near an overpass, Atapattu said.
Also, three police officers were killed during a search at a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.
Authorities said a large bomb had been found and defused late Sunday on an access road to the international airport.
Air Force Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne said Monday that authorities found a pipe bomb filled with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives. It was large enough to have caused damage to a 400-meter (400-yard) radius, he said.
Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was "a lot of tension" after the bombings, but added: "We've been through these kinds of situations before."
He said Sri Lankans are "an amazing bunch" and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs issued a travel advisory for those traveling to and from Sri Lanka.
If you decide to travel to Sri Lanka:
- Be aware of your surroundings when traveling to tourist locations and crowded public venues.
- Follow the instructions of local authorities.
- Monitor local media for breaking events and adjust your plans based on new information.
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive Alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
- Review the Crime and Safety Report for Sri Lanka.
- U.S. citizens who travel abroad should always have a contingency plan for emergency situations. Review the Traveler’s Checklist.
For further information:
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- Call us in Washington at 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada or 1-202-501-4444 from other countries from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).
- See the State Department's travel website for Worldwide Caution, Travel Advisories.
- See traveling safely abroad for useful travel tips.