(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Dpa/Colombo
At least 191 people were killed and over 500 injured in a series of eight apparently coordinated explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, hospital officials confirmed.
State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene called the blasts a ‘terrorist attack' and said that no matter who was behind them, no extremist group would be allowed to operate within the country.
The police announced that a curfew would go immediately into effect until 6 am Monday to facilitate security operations.
The government also imposed restrictions on social media after claiming various false rumours were being shared over the sites.
Two more fresh explosions were reported after six of the previous blasts went off simultaneously earlier in the morning.
Two deaths were reported in one of these incidents in Dehiwala, 12 kilometres south of the capital, including 12 foreigners, officials said. Three police officers were killed in the eighth explosion in Dematagoda when a wall collapsed on them.
Three of the earlier explosions took place in two Catholic churches and a Christian church where Easter services were being held, while another three were reported in five-star hotels in Colombo.
The first was reported in a church in Colombo, the capital. The other blasts followed within 30 minutes in Negombo, some 30 kilometres from Colombo, and another in Batticaloa, 250 kilometres to the east.
At least 105 people died in the incident in Negombo, while 46 were killed in the Colombo attacks and 27 died in Batticaloa.
There has been no claim of responsibility. Officials have not spoken of a terrorist attack, but the blasts appeared to target religious places and the economy, according to initial local media reports.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said the armed forces and police have launched investigations to find those responsible for the attack. He also appealed for the public to remain calm in order to allow them to carry out a full investigation into the attacks.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that ‘the attacks were clearly aimed at destabilizing the country,' but did not name any group being suspected for the blasts.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, head of the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, said it was not clear whether a local or international group was responsible for the attack.
World leaders expressed shock at the blasts on Easter Sunday.
Pope Francis told tens of thousands of worshippers at the Vatican that he was ‘pained and distressed' by news of the blasts.
‘I would like to express to the Christian community that's been affected, as they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such gruesome violence my heartfelt closeness,' said the pontiff.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ‘strongly' condemned the blasts, saying that ‘targeting worshippers is appalling' and that Afghanistan stands ‘in solidarity' with Sri Lanka ‘on this dark day.' ‘We're horrified by the news that Christians in Sri Lanka were attacked and killed during Easter services,' wrote Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman on Twitter. ‘We mourn them and pray for the injured and their family members. Terrorism, religious hatred and intolerance cannot be allowed to win,' added the spokesman.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote on Twitter that no matter the motive, the blasts were ‘cowardly, barbaric and cold-blooded,' exactly like the mosque attacks in New Zealand last month. ‘Terrorism has no religion, no nation, no geography.' The Catholic church has been supportive of a major crackdown on drugs in Sri Lanka in recent weeks that is part of a campaign launched by Sirisena.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said that the injured have been evacuated, while security forces have cordoned off the areas and search operations are under way.
Those injured included foreigners staying at the three five-star hotels - the Cinnamon Grand, Kingsbury and Shangri-La.
Security in the capital and the airport has been stepped up following the incidents.
The cabinet of ministers are holding an emergency meeting to discuss security arrangements.
The incidents were the first major blasts in the capital since the end in 2009 of the 26-year-long conflict in which rebels were fighting for an independent homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of the country.