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Sri Lankan police make two dozen arrests as death toll from blasts hits 290

Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (Photo by AFP)

Sri Lankan police have arrested two dozen people in connection with a string of bomb attacks on several churches and hotels that have claimed the lives of at least 290 people.

The country went on lockdown on Easter Sunday after eight apparently coordinated blasts hit churches filled with worshipers as well as luxury hotels in the capital Colombo, and the cities of Negombo and Batticaloa.

Police announced the dramatic rise in the death toll on Monday morning, saying some 500 people had also been injured in the attacks, the worst of their kind since the end of Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war a decade ago.

There were 32 foreigners among those killed, including nationals from Britain, the United States, Turkey, India, China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Three police officers were also killed several hours after the attack, when they raided a house in Colombo. Police reported an explosion at the house.

There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but police say they have already made 24 arrests in connection with the bloodshed.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told reporters that “so far the names that have come up are local,” but investigators will look into whether the suspected attackers had any “overseas links.”

The premier also acknowledged that “information was there” about possible attacks. “While this goes on, we must also look into why adequate precautions were not taken.”

An intelligence memo warning of a possible attack had circulated 10 days earlier, raising questions about whether more preventative measures could have been taken.

“Serious action need to be taken as to why this warning was ignored,” Sri Lanka's Minister of Telecommunications, Harin Fernando, tweeted along with a photo of the memo. The document, titled “Information of an alleged plan attack,” is dated April 11 and signed by Deputy Inspector General of Police, Priyalal Dissanayake.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who was on a private visit to India and Singapore, called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council early on Monday, according to a government source.

He expressed his shock at the explosions, saying he had issued directives to the law enforcers – including police and the Special Task Force – to carry out investigation into the incident and take action against those involved.

The prime minister would also attend the meeting, the source added.

Authorities earlier convened an emergency meeting involving the heads of the army, air force and navy, according to Economic Reforms Minister Harsha de Silva.

Witnesses said soldiers armed with automatic weapons stood guard outside major hotels and the World Trade Centre in the business district.

Heavy security measures are also reported outside the St. Sebastian’s church in the city of Negombo — one of the churches that came under attack.

Security personnel stand guard outside the St. Anthony's Shrine in the capital Colombo on April 22, 2019.(Photo by AFP)

Meanwhile, a police spokesman said the Sri Lankan military had found a homemade bomb near the departure gate of Colombo’s main airport late on Sunday as it was clearing a route in preparation for Sirisena’s return home. They disposed of the device in a controlled explosion, according to the spokesman.

Night-time curfew announced

A curfew that was enforced on the country from Sunday evening was relaxed early Monday morning, allowing many people to make their way home from the main airport, where they were stranded overnight due to the restrictions.

The government, however, ordered a night-time curfew that would run from 8:00 p.m. local time until 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday in the capital.

The curfew was announced as security forces said they are carrying out searches across the country for those behind the bomb attacks.

It was also announced that the president will declare a nationwide emergency from midnight on Monday.

“The government has decided to gazette the clauses related to prevention of terrorism to emergency regulation and gazette it by midnight,” the president’s media unit said in a statement.

Sri Lankan Army soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony Shrine after a blast in Colombo, April 21, 2019. (Photo by AP)

According to the president’s office, Sirisena will ask for foreign assistance to help track what it called international links to the bombings.

The government has also blocked access to social media and messaging sites out of concerns that “false news reports … spreading through social media” could lead to violence.

The services will be suspended until investigations into the attacks are concluded, the government said.

This has, however, concerned many, who believe it is very important for people to be able to communicate at times of crisis.

“This really puts people who already have vulnerable access to communication in a much worse position. It is a dangerous precedent to set,” said Joan Donovan, director of the technology and social change research project at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center.

People gather outside a hospital following blasts in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, April 21, 2019. (Photo by AP)

Facebook issued a statement Sunday, offering its condolences to those “affected by this horrendous act,” stating it is “committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”

“We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms,” it said. “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones.”

‘Intl. network likely involved’

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said on Monday that the attacks could not have succeeded without the help of “an international network.”

“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

He said that authorities were warned two weeks before the attacks, and had the names of suspects.

Meanwhile, security experts have warned that the attacks bear the hallmarks of the Takfiri Daesh and al-Qaeda terror groups.

A senior Asian counter-terrorism official who declined to be identified said the attack was likely carried out by a group with "significant operational capability and skilled commanders."

US issues travel warning

In another development, the State Department issued a travel advisory for its citizens traveling to Sri Lanka, saying that “terrorist” groups “continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka.”

It listed several potential targets, including tourist spots, transportation centers, markets, malls, government offices, hotels and places of worship, saying terrorists could attack “with little or no warning.”

Muslim leaders urge ‘maximum punishment’ for perpetrators

In the meantime, top Muslim leaders in the county demanded "maximum punishment" for the perpetrators of the attacks.

They also offered their condolences “to the people of Christian faith and extend our hands of friendship in solidarity.”

“We urge the government to provide security to all religious sites and to give maximum punishment to everyone involved in these dastardly acts,” said the All Ceylon Jamiyyathuul Ulama, or council of Muslim theologians.

The National Shoura Council, a group of 18 Muslim organizations, also said that the government must not “leave any stone unturned in its efforts to apprehend the culprits whoever they may be and to whatever part of the populace they may belong to.”

Fears of fresh post-civil war violence

The South Asian nation has a population of about 22 million people; 70 percent of whom are Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and seven percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.

Sri Lanka is reeling from a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with an estimated 100,000 deaths. The strife was mainly between the so-called Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, and ended when government forces defeated the rebels.

Authorities are now concerned that the new spate of violence could upset the fragile peace in the country.

Police have already reported a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in Sri Lanka’s northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.

Moreover, the country has recently witnessed a surge in ultra-nationalist Buddhism led by its most powerful Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena.

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