A series of eight bombings in Sri Lanka targeting Christian churches and hotels in three cities killed at least 207 people and wounded up to 450 others on Easter Sunday. Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene described the coordinated blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists. Here is what we know:
- At 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, bombs tore apart three churches, one in the capital of Colombo, and two others in the cities of Negombo and Batticaloa.
- Four hotels in Colombo were also attacked: the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand, the Tropical Inn and the Kingsbury. There was another explosion at a housing complex in Dematagoda.
- Those targeted were members of Sri Lanka’s Christian population and guests at the island nation’s luxury hotels.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “several U.S. citizens” were among those killed.
- The government of Sri Lanka has temporarily blocked social media services like Facebook and WhatsApp to prevent the spread of misinformation.
- Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense said seven suspects have been apprehended and the attacks appear to have been carried out by suicide bombers.
- Sri Lanka experienced a vicious 26-year long civil war between its Sinhala Buddhist majority and minority Tamil Tiger ethnic group that ended in 2009.
Witness describes chaos in bombing’s aftermath
A witness to one of the bombings, at a hotel by the zoo in Colombo, told CBSN about the chaotic aftermath that unfolded after the explosion. Asela Waidyalankara described hearing a large blast and rushing to see what had happened.
“Suddenly, near my residence, we heard a strong sound of an explosion, so I rushed up to my rooftop to observe what was going on, and I observed a small building from a location about 1 kilometer or less away from us,” Waidyalankara said by phone. “The closest landmark is the National Zoo of Sri Lanka, and we noticed within a few minutes there was a helicopter that approached the location and within a few more minutes we could hear ambulances and firetrucks coming into the area.”
“At that moment we realized this was probably a larger attack in connection to the chain of attacks that we witnessed,” he continued. “Incidentally so, the newswires picked it up, and said that two people had died in that particular explosion.”
“We as Sri Lankans are shocked and heartbroken,” Waidyalankara said. “But yet we will persevere.”
Sri Lankan government blocks social media
The Sri Lankan government blocked major social media networks and messaging apps, including Facebook and WhatsApp, in an attempt to prevent the spread of misinformation and rumors in the aftermath of the bombings. Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, spoke with CBSN on Sunday about the motivations behind the decision.
“I think governments around the world have come to see social media is a risk,” Grygiel said. “And platforms like Facebook and Facebook Inc., which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, really have not launched a product in a way that is safe or has enough content moderators or support to make sure that these platforms aren’t being abused.”
“When tragedy strikes, I think governments are taking quick action to make sure that rumors aren’t spread on some of these applications, for example,” Grygiel said.
Pompeo says Americans are among those killed
The secretary of state condemned the attack in a statement Sunday morning and said “several U.S. citizens were among those killed.”
“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,” Pompeo said. “The U.S. Embassy is working tirelessly to provide all possible assistance to the American citizens affected by the attacks and their families.”
World leaders condemn attack
On Sunday, world leaders spoke out and denounced the attacks. Speaking from St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis said, “I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence.”
“I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event,” the pope added.
President Trump tweeted a message of support on Sunday: “The United States offers heartfelt condolences to the great people of Sri Lanka. We stand ready to help!”
Former President Obama also tweeted a message: “The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the attacks as “cruel and cynical.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the blasts “an assault on all of humanity.”
Christians are an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka
The bombings came during church services on Easter Sunday, the most important holiday in the Christian calendar.
Sri Lanka is an ethnically diverse country with a predominantly Buddhist population. Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, according to a 2012 census. Twelve percent are Hindu, nearly 10 percent are Muslim and seven percent are Christian.
Seven suspects arrested in connection with the blast
Wijewardene, the defense minister who described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, told reporters Sunday evening that seven suspects had been arrested, though no one immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in the country and its economy.
Wickremesinghe said his government would “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible” for Sunday’s attacks, “regardless of their stature.”
At least 27 foreigners among the dead
The Sri Lanka government confirmed at least 11 foreigners were among the deceased. An additional 19 foreign nationals have been injured. According to the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry, those killed include:
- 3 people from India
- 1 person from Portugal
- 2 people from Turkey
- 3 people from the U.K.
- 2 people with U.S./U.K. dual nationalities
Death toll reaches at least 207 people
At least 207 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the blasts, pitching the South Asian island nation into the worst chaos it has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago. Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, said he feared the violence could trigger instability in the country and its economy.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said at least 450 more people were wounded in the blasts.