Posted on April 22, 2019

Easter Sunday Terror Attacks Targeting Christians at Churches and Luxury Hotels in Sri Lanka

Henry Martin et al., Daily Mail and AFP, April 21, 2019

A bomb was found and safely destroyed at Sri Lanka’s main airport this evening just hours after co-ordinated attacks killed 207 people in explosions at churches and five-star hotels on Easter Sunday.

Eight blasts ripped through landmarks around the capital Colombo, and on Sri Lanka’s east coast, targeting Christians, hotel guests and foreign tourists.

More than 450 people were wounded and five British citizens were among the dead.

A a six-foot pipe bomb was later found by air force personal on a routine patrol at the country’s main airport Bandaranaike International, also known as Katunayake Airport or Colombo International.

‘A PVC pipe which was six feet in length containing explosives in it was discovered,’ Air Force Spokesman Gihan Seneviratne told the Sri Lankan Sunday Times.

He said the bomb device was discovered by Air Force personnel on a routine patrol and was disposed by the Explosives Ordinance Disposal Unit of the Air Force in a controlled area.

The airport was put ‘on lockdown’ while the security forces examined and detonated the device, according to reports from the scene.

It comes after this morning, six bombs went off in quick succession before another two blasts two hours later in Sri Lanka’s worst violence since the end of its decades-long civil war in 2009.

A British family staying in one of the targeted hotels narrowly avoided the attack, because they had a lie in and missed breakfast when the bomber struck.

Dr Julian Emmanuel, 48, is staying at the Cinnamon Hotel where the terrorist detonated his suicide vest at around 8.30am.

Speaking from Sri Lanka with wife Maria, 39, daughter Jasintha, 11, and seven-year-old son Neethan, he told The Mirror: ‘We were quite lazy and running late.

‘We are on the ninth floor and breakfast was in the basement, that is where the bomb went off. So we missed it.’

He added: ‘We saw what had happened in the restaurant. But we could have been in the breakfast hall if it were not for the fact we were late – timing is everything I guess.’

The Surrey-based doctor added: ‘We have been so very lucky, very fortunate. It is in the hands of God, that is all you can do.’

He and his family were evacuated and had to stand outside the hotel for two hours, standing next to the scene of destruction as emergency services dealt with the dead and wounded.

‘We saw the aftermath, the carnage, the damage,’ he said.

He told the paper: ‘We saw the casualties, the emergency services arriving, and so we had to explain what had happened to the children. They experienced it at first hand, the saw the army, so they knew that it was a terrorist attack.’

Dr Emmanuel, who was hoping to organise a rugby tour to the country in two years time with an Old Boys rugby club in Old Coulsdon, Surrey, said his children were ‘quite scared’ but reassured by the response by the emergency services.

‘With it being Easter, they saw the message of Easter against the message of terrorism, and how different it was,’ he explained.

The family still intends to visit relatives during their trip.

As details of the horror emerged today, Sri Lankan TV chef Shantha Mayadunne and her London-based daughter Nisanga were among the first victims named.

Meanwhile a manager at the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo said the attacker had set off the horrific explosion in a packed restaurant at 8.30am, after waiting in a queue for a breakfast buffet.

At least 35 foreigners are feared to have been killed in the attacks – including five Britons, two of whom were joint US-UK citizens. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned the the ‘horrifying attacks’ which he said had killed ‘several British nationals’.

Further fatalities are said to include three Indians, two Turks, one Portuguese citizen and an unknown number of Dutch and Chinese nationals.

Seven suspects have been arrested, as it emerged the country’s police chief had warned of an Islamic extremist plot to target ‘prominent churches’ just 10 days earlier, but no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

Sri Lanka’s defence ministry has now ordered curfew with immediate effect ‘until further notice’ while access to social media messaging services has been shut down.

The bombings targeted the luxury Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels as well as St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, all frequented by tourists. Other blasts were reported at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a majority-Catholic town, and at Zion Church in the eastern town of Batticalo.

Later in the afternoon, two died in a strike at a hotel near a zoo in the south of Colombo, before a suspected suicide bomber killed police officers in the suburb of Orugodawatta in the north of the capital.

Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter Nisanga, believed to have been a student in London, died just moments after sharing a picture of their Easter breakfast at the Shangri-La hotel.

A friend of the family told Gulf News: ‘Nisanga was a very popular girl in college.

‘Besides the fact that she was bright and smart, her mother Shantha Mayadume, a renowned chef, made her more popular in college. She was well respected and an inspirational chef for Sri Lankans.’

Describing the Cinnamon Grand bombing, a hotel manager said the attacker had registered the night before as Mohamed Azzam Mohamed.

The bomber was just about to be served when he set off the explosives which were strapped to his back, killing himself and numerous guests.

The manager said: ‘There was utter chaos. It was 8.30 am and it was busy. It was families.

‘He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast. One of our managers who was welcoming guests was among those killed instantly.’

Millions of tourists visit Sri Lanka every year but political crisis and religious tension have placed the industry under threat in recent months.

No nation, organisation or group has yet claimed responsibility for the outrage.

Ten days ago, according to documents seen by the AFP new agency, Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers warning Islamist 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 small radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka which has no history of mass fatal attacks, but came to prominence last year linked to the vandalism and desecration of Buddhist statues.

Britain’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris said British citizens had been caught in the blast, but said he could not yet specify how many had been affected.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: ‘I’m deeply shocked and saddened by the horrifying attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka today, and the tragic news of more than 200 people killed, including several British nationals.

‘To target those gathered for the simple act of worship on Easter Sunday is unspeakably wicked.

‘Everyone has a right to practise their faith in peace, safety and security but tragedies like this, and the one in Christchurch, remind us that there are some who hate these rights and freedoms.

‘These despicable acts were carried out at a time when millions of Christians celebrate Easter while living under the shadow of persecution. Many gather in churches at risk of attack; countless more will have suffered threats or discrimination.

‘The UK stands in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world and with the government and people of Sri Lanka. My prayers are with all the victims and their families.’

Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry later said five Britons, including two with joint UK-US citizenship, were among the dead.

The country’s President Maithripala Sirisena said he was shocked by the explosions and appealed for calm, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called the attacks ‘cowardly’.

‘I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation,’ the PM said.

Eight people have been arrested and ‘so far the names that have come up are local’, he said, but officials are probing possible foreign links.

A social media ban was also put in place ‘in order to prevent incorrect and wrong information being spread’ in what officials said was a temporary measure, alongside an indefinite curfew.

Condemnation has poured in from world leaders including President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Pope Francis as he gave his Easter message.

Mrs May said: ‘The acts of violence against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka are truly appalling, and my deepest sympathies go out to all of those affected at this tragic time. We must stand together to make sure that no one should ever have to practise their faith in fear.

President Trump tweeted: ‘Heartfelt condolences from the people of the United States to the people of Sri Lanka on the horrible terrorist attacks on churches and hotels. We stand ready to help!’

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

Pope Francis expressed his sadness over the attacks during his traditional Easter address at the Vatican.

‘I want to express my affectionate closeness with the Christian community, attacked while it was at prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence,’ he said.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said: ‘I condemn the heinous terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, a sacred day for Christians.

‘The UN stands in solidarity with Sri Lanka as the global community fights hatred and violent extremism together. Holy sites must be respected.’

France’s President Emmanuel Macron labelled the blasts ‘odious’, saying: ‘We are deeply saddened by the terrorist attacks against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.

‘We firmly condemn these odious acts. We stand by the people of Sri Lanka and our thoughts go out to the loved ones of the victims on this Easter Sunday.’

The magnitude of the violence recalls the bombings perpetrated by the separatist Tamil Tigers that targeted a bank, a shopping centre, a Buddhist temple and hotels popular with tourists a decade ago.

In 2009 Sri Lankan security forces defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought to create an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils.

At least 160 people injured in the St Anthony’s blast had been admitted to the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official said.

‘A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there,’ read a post in English on the Facebook page of the St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo.

Shortly after those blasts were reported, police confirmed three hotels in the capital had also been hit, along with a church in the town of Batticalao, in the east of the country.

Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of St Anthony’s church had been almost blown off in the blast, with roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor. .

Witness N. A. Sumanapala, who was at his shop near the church when the blast happened, said: ‘It was a river of blood.’

Another witness, Gabriel, said his brother was at mass at the church and tourist landmark 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.’

Only around six percent 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.

In further condolonces, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan wrote: ‘Strongly condemn the horrific terrorist attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday resulting in precious lives lost & hundreds injured.

‘My profound condolences go to our Sri Lankan brethren. Pakistan stands in complete solidarity with Sri Lanka in their hour of grief.’

Prime Minister of India Chowkidar Narendra Modi said: ‘Strongly condemn the horrific blasts in Sri Lanka. There is no place for such barbarism in our region. India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.

‘My thoughts are with the bereaved families and prayers with the injured.’

EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his ‘horror and sadness’ after the deadly string of Easter Sunday attacks.

‘I offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims who had gathered to worship peacefully or come to visit this beautiful country,’ Juncker said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the blasts ‘an assault on all of humanity,’ while Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced them as ‘cruel and cynical.’