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Bomb Blasts Kill Over 200 in Sri Lanka 04/21 11:23

   More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in eight bomb 
blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels in or near Sri Lanka's capital on 
Easter Sunday -- the deadliest violence the South Asian island country has seen 
since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

   COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- More than 200 people were killed and hundreds 
more wounded in eight bomb blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels in or 
near Sri Lanka's capital on Easter Sunday --- the deadliest violence the South 
Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

   Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the bombings as a terrorist 
attack by religious extremists and said seven suspects had been arrested, 
though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. He said most of the 
blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

   The explosions at three churches and three hotels collapsed ceilings and 
blew out windows, killing worshippers and guests. People were seen carrying the 
wounded out of blood-spattered pews. Witnesses described powerful explosions, 
followed by scenes of smoke, blood, broken glass, alarms going off and victims 
screaming.

   "People were being dragged out," said Bhanuka Harischandra, of Colombo, a 
24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company who was going to the city's 
Shangri-La Hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. "People didn't know what was 
going on. It was panic mode."

   He added, "There was blood everywhere."

   The three hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony's Shrine, are 
frequented by foreign tourists. Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry said the bodies of 
at least 27 foreigners were recovered and included people from Britain, the 
U.S., India, Portugal and Turkey. China's Communist Party newspaper said two 
Chinese were killed.

   Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could 
trigger instability in Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people, and 
vowed to "vest all necessary powers with the defense forces" to take action 
against those responsible. The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 
p.m. to 6 a.m.

   The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on Sri Lanka's 
government to "mercilessly" punish those responsible "because only animals can 
behave like that."

   Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said at least 207 people were killed and 
450 wounded.

   The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka's 26-year 
civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil 
minority, sought independence from the Buddhist-majority country. During the 
war, the Tigers and other rebels carried out a multitude of bombings. The 
Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

   Sri Lanka, situated off the southern tip of India, is about 70 percent 
Buddhist, with the rest of the population Muslim, Hindu or Christian. While 
there have been scattered incidents of anti-Christian harassment in recent 
years, there has been nothing on the scale of what happened Sunday.

   There is also no history of violent Muslim militants in Sri Lanka. However, 
tensions have been running high more recently 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.

   "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," Francis said.

   The first six blasts took place nearly simultaneously in the morning in 
Colombo at St. Anthony's Shrine --- a Catholic church --- and the Cinnamon 
Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels.

   The two other explosions occurred after a lull of a few hours at St. 
Sebastian Catholic church in Negombo, a mostly Catholic town north of Colombo, 
and at the Protestant Zion church in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

   Three police officers were killed while conducting a search at a suspected 
safe house in Dematagoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, when its occupants 
apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, Wijewardena said.

   Local TV showed the Shangri-La's second-floor restaurant was gutted, with 
the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned 
in the blackened space. From outside the police cordon, three bodies could be 
seen covered in white sheets.

   Foreign tourists hurriedly took to their cellphones to text family and loved 
ones around the world that they were OK.

   One group was on a 15-day tour of the tropical island country, seeing such 
sites as Buddhist monuments, tea plantations, jungle eco-lodges and sandy 
beaches. The tour started last week in Negombo, where one of the blasts took 
place, and was supposed to end in Colombo, but that may be dropped from the 
itinerary.

   "Having experienced the open and welcoming Sri Lanka during my last week 
traveling through the country, I had a sense that the country was turning the 
corner, and in particular those in the tourism industry were hopeful for the 
future," said Peter Kelson, a technology manager from Sydney.

   "Apart from the tragedy of the immediate victims of the bombings, I worry 
that these terrible events will set the country back significantly," he said.

   Tour group leader Suminda Dodangoda was exasperated at the political 
problems still convulsing his country.

   "We are still at war 33 years later," he told the tourists.

   Sri Lankan security forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, ending a 
civil war that took over 100,000 lives, with both sides accused of grave human 
rights violations.

   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 
account was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.


(KA)

 
 
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