Sri Lanka Declares State of Emergency

22 April, 2019

Sri Lanka is under a state of emergency following bomb attacks at hotels and Christian religious centers in the country Sunday. The attacks killed almost 300 people and wounded hundreds of others. Sunday was Easter, the holiest day in the Christian year.

President Maithripala Sirisena's emergency order permits police expanded power to search, seize, arrest, and question people. A curfew is also in effect from sunset to sunrise.

The government also has blocked most social media websites.

Sri Lankan officials said Monday that intelligence agencies had warned weeks ago of possible attacks by a little known Muslim extremist group, National Thowfeek Jamaath. It has now been blamed for the Easter attacks in the mainly Buddhist country.

Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the intelligence agencies began issuing the warnings on April 4. The defense ministry wrote to the police chief with information that included the group's name. And police wrote April 11 to the heads of security of the judiciary and diplomatic security division.

Relatives carry a coffin for burial during the funerals of three members of the same family, all died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019.
Relatives carry a coffin for burial during the funerals of three members of the same family, all died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019.

It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken after the threats. Officials said they knew where the group trained and kept shelter. However, they did not identify any of the seven suicide bombers, whose bodies were recovered, or the suspects arrested so far.

After Senaratne spoke to reporters Monday, a car parked near one of the bombed churches exploded. People fled.

Police found three additional bombs near the vehicle and tried to disarm them, but they exploded. No one was hurt.

Also on Monday, police found 87 bomb devices near Colombo's bus station, officials said. They did not say if they were linked to Sunday's attacks.

Senaratne also said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cabinet did not know about the warnings until after the attacks.

Sirisena was out of the country at the time of the attacks. He had removed Wickremesinghe and his cabinet from power in late October. The Supreme Court has since returned Wickremesinghe as prime minister. However, he has been barred from meetings of the country's Security Council since October.

All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but officials suspect foreign links, Senaratne said.

Sirisena will meet with diplomats in Colombo Tuesday to ask for help in the investigation.

Two other government ministers also suggested intelligence failures in Sri Lanka. The telecommunications minister wrote on Twitter: "Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored."

Another minister said some security officers warned about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.

The Roman Catholic leader of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said the attacks could have been prevented. "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.

Sri Lanka's defense minister described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists.

Police said 24 suspects had been arrested, but no one has claimed responsibility.

Most of the explosions were in Colombo, the country's capital. Outside Colombo, St. Sebastian's Church in the town of Negombo was also targeted.

Nilantha Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman, and his family went to St. Sebastian's for Easter service Sunday. He said they all escaped unharmed, but he remained horrified by images of the bodies being removed from the church.

At the Shangri-La Hotel, one witness said "people were being dragged out" after the explosion.

"There was blood everywhere," said business owner Bhanuka Harischandra, of Colombo, who was going to the hotel for a meeting. "People didn't know what was going on. It was panic mode."

Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the ministry of tourism said 39 foreigners were also killed.

The U.S. said "several" Americans were among the dead. Britain, India, China, Japan and Portugal said they also lost citizens.

Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, expressed sympathy at the end of his traditional Easter blessing in Rome.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Washington that he had spoken to the Sri Lankan prime minister and offered assistance.

"This is America's fight, too," he said. "We also stand with millions of Sri Lankans who support the freedom of their fellow citizens to worship as they please. We take confidence in knowing that not even atrocities like this one will deter them from respecting religious freedom."

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

mode - n. a specified way of thinking, feeling, or acting

confidence - n. the feeling of being certain that something will happen or that something is true

atrocity - n. a very cruel or terrible act or action

deter - v. to prevent (something) from happening