Asia Pacific

Sri Lanka searches for answers after Easter terrorist attacks kill hundreds

Bloomberg, Reuters, AP, AFP-JIJI

Sri Lanka sought to restore stability following one of Asia’s deadliest terrorist attacks in years, detaining 24 suspects and asking the world for help in investigating possible involvement by international terrorist groups.

Authorities said 290 people were killed and about 500 wounded by a string of bombings that tore through churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday.

The government announced a curfew in Colombo from 8 p.m. Monday until 4 a.m. A Sunday night curfew was lifted in the morning.

The government believes a local Islamist extremist group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath was behind the deadly suicide bomb attacks, government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said Monday. The strikes, which targeted foreign tourists and Christians, marked a shift from the violence that fueled a three-decade civil war on the Indian Ocean island.

Senaratne, who is also a Cabinet minister, added that the government was investigating whether the group had “international support.”

Not much is known about the NTJ, a radical Muslim group that his been linked to the vandalizing of Buddhist statues.

A police source said that all 24 people in custody in connection with the attacks belong to an “extremist” group, but did not specify further.

Sri Lanka needs assistance from security officials abroad to “check foreign links of these groups,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in an address to the nation late Sunday, without providing more details. “We have to look deeper into this, but the first task is to make sure that the country is not destabilized.”

Wickremesinghe suggested authorities had received warnings but “not enough attention had been paid.” One of his Cabinet ministers, Harin Fernando, tweeted an internal police memo dated April 11 warning that NTJ planned to bomb Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission.

The bombings were carried out by seven suicide bombers, a government investigator said Monday.

An analysis of the attackers’ body parts made clear that they were suicide bombers, said Ariyananda Welianga, a forensic crime investigator. He said most attacks were by one bomber, with two at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel.

A government source said President Maithripala Sirisena, who was abroad when the attacks happened, had called a meeting of the National Security Council early on Monday. Wickremesinghe would attend the meeting, the source said.

Sri Lankan military who were clearing the route from Colombo airport late on Sunday in preparation for Sirisena’s return found a homemade bomb near the departure gate, an air force spokesman said.

They disposed of the device in a controlled explosion, the spokesman said.

A sense of unease pervaded the nation Sunday following a period of relative calm in the decade since the end of a brutal conflict between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders condemned the attack and offered support.

Sri Lanka confirmed that 11 foreigners who died in the attacks had been identified — including citizens of India, Portugal, Turkey, the U.K. and U.S. — and said 25 unidentified bodies believed to be foreigners were in a Colombo morgue. Most were targeted at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the capital.

Authorities blocked platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp.

The Colombo Stock Exchange put its Monday opening on hold and schools will remain closed until Wednesday. SriLankan Airlines Ltd. advised travelers to arrive four hours before their flights to undergo additional security checks.

The attacks will test a government that is still reeling from a political crisis last year that has weighed on the economy and led to downgrades in Sri Lanka’s credit rating.

“What these bombings potentially do is take it from inertia and political infighting and rudderlessness to a real fear of instability and a sense of a return to the bad old days,” said Alan Keenan, a senior Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group based in London. “It’s striking that in almost three decades of war between the Tamils and government forces, foreign tourists were never targeted.”

Catholics, split between the Sinhalese and Tamils, make up 6.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, according to the nation’s 2012 census. Buddhists account for 70 percent of the total, while Hindus and Muslims make up the rest.

In the early 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — known as the Tamil Tigers — began fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The conflict, marked by the use of child soldiers and human rights violations on both sides, killed more than 100,000 people before former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government won a decisive victory in 2009.

Rajapaksa has been a key player in Sri Lanka’s political fighting over the past six months.

Last October, he was suddenly appointed prime minister by Sirisena, leading to a constitutional crisis. Wickremesinghe, the deposed prime minister, was reinstated in December after a Supreme Court decision.

It remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka’s politicians will unite in the face of the attacks, which threaten to further hurt economic growth. Wickremesinghe warned that tourism will suffer and investors may pull money from the country.

Sri Lanka’s economy has struggled in recent years, forcing the government to take out a $1.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Economic growth in the quarter to December was the slowest in 19 quarters. The rupee dropped to consecutive record lows last year amid the political crisis, before recovering this year.

“That is bad news for the country where the memories of the civil war are still very much alive,” said Raffaele Bertoni, head of debt-capital markets at Gulf Investment Corp. in Kuwait City. “Tourism is a very important sector for the economy and one of the major source of external reserves.”

Sri Lanka has a history of communal violence between virtually all groups, according to Keenan from Crisis Group.

“What’s surprising about this is the particularly brutal and coordinated nature of the attacks and targets, this combination of what appear to be Tamil Catholic churches and high-end hotels,” he said. “These are the first classically terrorist attacks since the end of the war.”