COLOMBO   -     At least 207 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in a series of bomb blasts that hit luxury hotels and churches across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, leaving the entire country in a state of lock-down.

The first wave of attacks struck at the heart of the country’s minority Christian community during busy Easter services at churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa on Sunday morning.

Additional blasts ripped through three high-end hotels, the Shangri La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury, all in capital city Colombo.

In a statement, the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo said that the hotel’s Table One cafe was hit just after 9 am local time. The hotel is popular with foreign tourists and the country’s business community.

A seventh and eighth blast, at a hotel in front of the Dehiwala Zoo in Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia and at a private house in Mahawila Gardens, in Dematagoda, occurred Sunday afternoon.

In what the police said were coordinated attacks carried out by a  single group, bombers struck three churches and three five-star hotels popular with tourists. At least 207 people were killed and 450 others injured, a police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekera, said.

• The wave of bombings began around 8:45 am, and targeted Catholic houses of worship — St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa — along with the luxury hotels the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand the Kingsbury.

• 13 suspects were arrested in connection with the bombings, Sri Lanka’s state defence minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said. He said that suicide bombers had been behind the explosions.

• Sri Lanka temporarily blocked major social media and messaging services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, to curb misinformation, according to the president’s secretary, Udaya Seneviratne.

• At least 27 of the dead were foreigners, according to a spokesman at Sri Lanka’s National Hospital. They included Americans, British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution Harsha de Silva said on Twitter that “close to 30 foreigners” were killed on Sunday. In the capital, Colombo, at least 20 foreigners are among the dead, according to hospital Director General Anil Jasinghe.

Thirteen people are under arrest following the attacks, De Silva wrote after an emergency meeting with defence officials.

There was however no immediate claim of responsibility. Sri Lankan security officials said police and security services immediately rushed to all affected areas and sealed off the churches and hotels.

The violence ends a decade of relative peace in Sri Lanka following the end of its civil war in 2009. Terrorist bombings were common during the brutal 25-year struggle.

 

‘IT WAS A RIVER OF BLOOD’

 

Images from the site of the bombings showed bloodied and shattered pews and victims lying on the floor of houses of worship. The walls and windows of the targeted hotels were blown out.

Some of the victims were killed as worshipers gathered for Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the capital; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, about 20 miles north of Colombo; and Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa, officials said.

Mangala Samaraweera, the Sri Lankan finance minister, called the explosions “a well-coordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy.”

A witness, Sarita Marlou, who was at the Shangri-La hotel, wrote in a Facebook post that one blast occurred at 8:57 am in the Table One Restaurant on the third floor where people had gathered for brunch.

“Felt the blast all the way up to the 17th floor where we were sleeping,” she wrote. “Few minutes later, we were asked to evacuate the hotel. While running down the stairs, saw a lot of blood on the floor but we were still clueless as to what really happened.”

Ms Marlou posted that the guests had been stuck outside for more than two hours before being ushered back inside as the sun got hot. But they still were not cleared to go back to their rooms, she wrote.

NA Sumanapala, a shopkeeper near St Anthony’s Shrine who had run inside to help, said: “It was a river of blood. Ash was falling like snow.”

 

EASTER EVENTS

 

Father Edmond Tillekeratne, social communications director for the Archdiocese of Colombo, spoke to CNN from St Sebastian’s Church, one of the locations targeted. He said the blast took place after Easter Mass, and there were about 30 bodies lying in the area of the church.

Tillekeratne said three priests had been celebrating the mass at the time of the blast. Two of them were badly injured by flying glass and debris, and one was only slightly injured because he was behind the altar.

He estimated that more than a thousand people had come to the church for Easter Sunday “because it is a special day.” Many came from villages, he added. He described the ground as covered in rubble and shattered glass. “You can see pieces of flesh thrown all over the walls and on the sanctuary and even outside of the church,” he added.

Christianity is a minority religion in Sri Lanka, accounting for less than 10% of the total population of 21.4 million. According to census data, 70.2% of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist, 12% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim, and 7.4% Christian.

It is estimated that 82% of Sri Lankan Christians are Roman Catholic.

 

CURFEW IMPOSED

 

Police in Sri Lanka imposed an island-wide curfew starting Sunday at 6 pm local until the morning.

The country’s authorities convened an emergency meeting involving the heads of the army, air force and navy, according to Sri Lanka’s economic reforms minister, Harsha de Silva.  He said on Twitter that all emergency steps had been taken and that the group would issue a statement on the blasts.

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the blasts on Twitter, calling on Sri Lankans to “remain united and strong.”

President Maithripala Sirisena also spoke out following the attacks. “I have given instructions to take very stern action against the persons who are responsible for this conspiracy,” he said.

“Horrible scenes, I saw many body parts strewn all over,” de Silva said after visiting the Kochchikade church and Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. “We took multiple casualties to hospital. Hopefully saved many lives.”

De Silva confirmed that foreigners were among the casualties and said rescue operations were underway, adding that emergency crews were operating in “full force.”

 

13 SUSPECTS ARRESTED

 

Ruwan Wijewardene, the defence minister, said that 13 people had been arrested and identified in connection with the attacks. The government also said that suicide bombers had set off the explosions. “We believe these were coordinated attacks, and one group was behind them,” Wijewardene said. He urged the news media not to report the names of the attackers or to make them “martyrs.”

Three officers were killed while hunting for the attackers at a housing complex in the Colombo suburb of Dematagoda, officials said. The police said they had found explosives inside one of the apartments and that a firefight had broken out between officers and the suspects inside the building.

One suspect detonated explosives during questioning by the police inside a home in the suburb. Officials at the site said they believed the attacks had been planned there. As the authorities questioned members of the group, another suspect escaped, and was being sought by a circling helicopter.

Wijewardene said that police units had been put on alert a week ago by the force’s chief inspector, Pujith Jayasundara, about potential attacks on churches. It was unclear what steps taken to safeguard against attacks.

Last year, Sri Lanka briefly blocked social networks after viral misinformation and calls to anti-Muslim violence, circulating largely on Facebook, were blamed for a wave of riots and lynchings. Government officials had repeatedly warned Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, that the posts could lead to violence. Though the company promised to hire more moderators and improve communication, the incident left officials wary of the social media giant.

Other countries, such as India, have periodically blocked social media during spasms of violence linked to the platforms. While researchers have blamed Facebook for inciting racist attacks in a range of countries, including Germany, the risk is thought to be higher in places where trust in local authorities is lower and histories of communal violence are more recent.

The growing concerns threaten Facebook’s long-term business model, which relies on near-constant growth in developing markets, particularly in Asia.

Sri Lanka’s ban on social media on Sunday represented an escalation in the global backlash against social media companies because the move appeared to be pre-emptive. Rather than trusting in Facebook and other companies to police their networks for hate speech or incitement that could arise as a result of Sunday’s attacks, the government was treating the platforms as too dangerous to remain online.

The prime minister, Wickremesinghe, called for people not to believe false information circulating online. The Sri Lanka Red Cross also said in a tweet that online rumors that its building had been attacked were false.