BRITS are believed to be among 156 killed in an Easter Sunday terror attack on eight churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka today.
Nearly 500 are thought to have been injured when blasts ripped through multiple buildings in Colombo – where tourists were staying and worshippers had gathered for morning mass.
Among the dead are 35 foreigners, local reports say, including nationals from the UK, US, Netherlands and Portugal.
Three churches and three hotels – the luxury Shangri-La Hotel, Cinnamon Grand and The Kingsbury Colombo – were targeted in the devastating attacks.
Hours after the first six were reported, there have been two more fatal blasts in the city – an explosion at a hotel in Dehiwala which killed two, and another in a housing complex in Dematagoda which killed three, taking the shocking attacks up to eight.
Two of the explosions this morning – as Christians attended Easter mass – were carried out by suicide bombers, according to a security official.
WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR:
- At least 156 people killed after suicide bomb blasts at three churches and three hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka
- A seventh and eighth explosion in Easter Sunday massacre hours after the first six
- Tourists from UK, US, Portugal and the Netherlands are among the victims
- Theresa May brands attack “truly appalling” as world leaders express sorrow
- Social media ban in place to prevent spread of misinformation, and night curfew imposed
- Culprits identified, says defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene
Stunned witnesses reported seeing injured people being carried out from the rubble of the gutted hotels this morning.
Sri Lanka’s minister of defence Ruwan Wijewardene said in a press conference: “We have taken all the necessary precautions to keep this country safe and the people safe.
“We believe that all the culprits who have been involved in this unfortunate terrorist incident will be taken into custody as soon as possible. They have been identified, and they will be taken into custody as soon as possible.”
Dozens of local people rushed to donate blood to help the wounded in the wake of the terrifying attacks, after witnesses reported seeing buildings shake in the explosions.
Shocking images from inside one of the churches show bloodied pews, a destroyed roof and bodies scattered on the ground – as all Easter services planned for this evening in the city were cancelled.
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With the exact number of Brits caught up in the horrifying attacks unknown at this stage, a spokesman from the Foreign Office said: “We are aware of reports of a number of explosions in Sri Lanka, including Colombo, and we are urgently seeking information from the local authorities.
“British nationals in Sri Lanka should follow the instructions of the local authorities and check FCO travel advice for updates.”
Britain’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris added in a statement: “We understand that some British citizens were caught in the blasts but we are unable to say how many people are, or might have been, affected.”
Worshippers were attacked at St Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic Church in Kochchikade, Colombo, St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo, and at Zion Church in the eastern town of Batticaloa – where more than 300 people are thought to have been injured.
Dozens of people in Sri Lanka reported a restriction on social media use this morning, following the explosions.
The government confirmed it has shutdown access to Facebook and WhatsApp – a tactic which has been used before in the country to prevent the spread of violence and misinformation.
A night curfew from 6pm is also in place in the wake of the attacks, the Sri Lanka defence minister announced, with no indication when it will be lifted.
It has emerged Sri Lanka’s police chief warned of suicide bombers planning to hit “prominent churches” 10 days before today’s attack.
Pujuth Jayasundara reportedly said: “A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo”.
The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the destruction of Buddhist statues.
There has been no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009, during which bomb blasts in the capital were common.
Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).
And there have been recent reports of clashes between Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim communities, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.
EASTER SUNDAY MASSACRE
Today security officials told how six near simultaneous blasts hit three churches and three hotels popular with tourists.
It is the worst violence in Sri Lanka since the country’s bloody civil war ended a decade ago.
The death toll in the shocking attack has risen to 156, according to AFP, with Reuters earlier reporting “about 100” have died – with just one of the church attacks said to have seen 300 victims.
Prime Minister Theresa May said: “The acts of violence against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka are truly appalling, and my deepest sympathies go out to all of those affected at this tragic time.
“We must stand together to make sure that no one should ever have to practise their faith in fear.”
The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka condemned the “evil attacks”, saying he was in a church service which was cut short by the blasts.
James Dauris tweeted: “Our prayers for the victims of these evil attacks, and for their families. Our thoughts are with the medical staff, police and all involved in the response.”
To target Christians on this their most sacred day is evil.
Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley
All government schools will be closed and the airport locked down with only passengers allowed in the building, as the Sri Lankan Prime Minister calls for an emergency meeting.
Ranil Wickremesinghe wrote on Twitter: “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today.
“I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted: “I’m deeply shocked and saddened by the horrifying attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka today.
“To target those gathered for worship on Easter Sunday is particularly wicked.
“My prayers are with the victims and their families, and with those assisting in the response.”
Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, added: “To target Christians on this their most sacred day is evil. Sending love to Sri Lankans caught in this terror.”
‘COWARDLY TERROR ATTACKS’
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “Those affected by the appalling and despicable attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka will be in the prayers of millions marking Easter Sunday around the world today.
“On this holy day, let us stand with the people of Sri Lanka in prayer, condolence and solidarity as we reject all violence, all hatred and all division.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote in a message to his Sri Lankan counterpart that he was “stunned and horrified” by the “cowardly terror attacks”.
And New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose country suffered a devastating terror attack last month, said: “New Zealand rejects all forms of extremism and stands for freedom of religion and the right to worship safely.”
As world leaders sent messages of sympathy to Sri Lanka, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the series of attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka as “cruel and cynical”.
And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I’m appalled by the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian calendar.”
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena urged people to stay calm, adding: “I am shocked and saddened by the situation that has occurred.”
The Shangri-La’s second-floor restaurant was gutted in the blast, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned in the blackened space.
A police magistrate was at the hotel to inspect the bodies recovered from the restaurant.
From outside the police cordon, three bodies could be seen covered in white sheets.
The luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo has been gutted by a bomb this morning
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