April 22 (UPI) — Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency Monday, hoping to track down the perpetrators involved in the Easter suicide attacks that have so far killed nearly 300 people.
Seven suicide bombers carried out six coordinated attacks at churches and hotels Sunday, killing at least 290 people. Sri Lankan authorities said two dozen people have been arrested, and they identified local Islamist militant group National Thowheed Jamath as being responsible for the blasts.
The government declared a state of emergency to take effect at midnight Monday. The declaration allows police and military forces to detain and interrogate potential suspects without a court order. Officials also said a curfew would remain in effect for another night.
The emergency declaration came Monday as a new explosion was heard in the capital of Colombo. The blast occurred as police attempted to defuse explosives in a suspicious van near another church. The explosion knocked down a security officers and blew out the windows on the street.
Officials also said foreign intelligence agencies had warned of the plot and some of those arrested, along with some of the bombers who died, were named in the intelligence reports. Sri Lankan officials said, however, they have doubts the attacks were carried out by National Thowheed Jamath alone.
Justice minister Rauf Hakeem said “such a horrendous crime committed in such sophisticated, coordinated fashion” could not have been carried out by the local Islamist group alone.
Authorities said they found 87 bomb detonators at the main bus station in Colombo and another explosive device was found near Bandaranike International Airport. Officials said they’d been disposed of.
More than 1,000 worshipers were packed inside the St. Sebastian church when explosions went off during the Easter Sunday service. There were at least eight bomb blasts in total during the highly coordinated attack. The Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La Hotel and the Kingsbury Hotel, all in Colombo, were attacked along with St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade and Zion Church in Batticaloa.
“We never expected such a thing to happen, especially in a place of religious worship,” Bishop J.D. Anthony said Monday. “This church is in a very rural area so we never expected this to happen here … Innocent people who came to pray here … they sacrificed their life for God.”
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said citizens of Poland, Denmark, China, the United States and other nations were among the dead. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted Monday two Australian citizens were killed and two were injured.
Deeply sad to report it has been confirmed two Australians were killed in the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday terrorist attack yesterday. The two Australians were from the same family and were living in Sri Lanka.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) April 22, 2019
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the attacks as “cowardly.’
“I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong,” he said in a statement Sunday on Twitter.
Word about advance warning of the plot may be a reference to an April 11 memo circulating on social networks that warned of possible attacks.
“Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored,” Sri Lanka Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernado tweeted Sunday with copies of the memo.
The New York Police Department increased its presence around places of worship following the attack, NYPD Chief Terence Monahan said.
“Houses of worship are sanctuaries for congregants to gather — without fear,” he said on Twitter. “Although there is no known nexus to NYC, NYPD officers will be seen at temples and churches as we remain steadfast in our mission to keep every New Yorker safe.”
The United States also issued a travel advisory for Sri Lanka in the wake of the attacks.
“Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka,” the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka said on its website. “Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations” as well as other government facilities, airports and places of worship, among other public locations.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonia Guterres said he was “outraged by the terror attacks” and called for the perpetrators to be “swiftly brought to justice.”
The Indian Coast Guard is on high alert in Palk Straight, the narrow sea channel between Sri Lanka and India, to watch for perpetrators fleeing the island.
According to 2011 census data, 7.4 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 24.1 million is Christian while 70 percent identifies as Buddhist, 12 percent Hindu and 9.7 percent Muslim.
Sri Lanka has seen a decade of lasting violence after the end of its 25-year civil war in 2009, when terrorist bombings were common. More than 100,000 civilians and 50,000 fighters died in the conflict.