POST TIME: 23 April, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka churches, luxury hotels
Pall of gloom as death toll hits 290
AFP, Colombo

Pall of gloom as death toll hits 290

Security personnel inspect the interior of St Sebastian's Church in Negombo yesterday, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka killing at least 290 people. AFP Photo

Sri Lanka yesterday said it believed a local Islamist extremist group was behind deadly suicide bomb blasts that killed at least 290 people as it announced a national state of emergency beginning midnight. Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said investigators were looking at whether the National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) group had "international support" for the deadly Easter Sunday attacks on churches and luxury hotels.

Wary of stirring ethnic and religious tensions, officials have provided few details about 24 people arrested since the attacks. Not much is known about the NTJ, but documents seen by AFP show Sri Lanka's police chief issued a warning on April 11, saying a "foreign intelligence agency" had reported the group was planning attacks on churches and the Indian high commission. The group has previously been linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues.

"We don't see that only a small organisation in this country can do all that," said Senaratne. "We are now investigating the international support for them, and their other links ... how they produced the suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this."

Russian News Agency TASS, however, reported citing Al-Arabiya TV channel that Islamist group Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Watania has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks. Al-Arabiya TV made the claim on its Twitter account yesterday without providing any details about the group.

The death toll from Sunday's attacks rose dramatically Monday to 290 -- including dozens of foreigners -- in the country's worst attacks for over a decade.

More than 500 people were injured in the assault that saw suicide bombers hit three high-end hotels popular with foreign tourists, and three churches, unleashing carnage in Colombo and beyond.

Two additional blasts were triggered yesterday as security forces carried out raids searching for suspects. Police also found 87 bomb detonators at the main bus station in the capital.

And as tension remained high, police reported a fresh explosion as they attempted to defuse another suspected bomb found Monday near one of the three churches targeted. There were no further details, but police earlier also reported finding 87 bomb detonators scattered on the ground at a bus station and a nearby garbage dump.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s office said a state of emergency “limited to counter terrorism regulations only” would be introduced from midnight Monday. “This is being done to allow the police and the three forces to ensure public security,” the statement said, referring to the army, navy and air force.

Officials said Sirisena would meet with Colombo-based diplomats Tuesday to seek international assistance in the investigation.

“The intelligence sections have reported that there are international terror groups which are behind the local terrorists,” the statement said. “International assistance will be sought to combat them.”

The government information department said a new curfew would run from 8:00 pm (1430 GMT) on Monday until 4:00 am on Tuesday.

The US State Department, meanwhile, warned of further attacks in a revised travel advisory, urging increased caution and adding: “Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka.”

The attacks were the worst ever carried out against Sri Lanka’s small Christian minority, who make up just seven percent of the 21 million population.

At least 37 foreigners were among the dead, citizens of India, Britain, Turkey, Australia, Japan and Portugal, as well as a dual US-British passport holder.

Interpol is deploying a team of investigators, including experts in disaster victim identification, to Sri Lanka to help local authorities in the aftermath of deadly suicide blasts.