Tears and troops as Sri Lanka mourns suicide bomb dead

By AFP

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka’s churches remained shut on Sunday, forcing Christians to say prayers of grief in private over the Easter suicide attacks that the country’s Roman Catholic leader called “an insult to humanity”.

Fearing a repeat of the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in which 253 people died, the ar chbi shop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, held a private Mass after cancelling all public services.

Amid heavy security imposed across the country, a vigil was also held on Sunday outside St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo at 8:45am — the moment the bomber struck the church, killing dozens of worshippers.

“During this Mass, we are paying attention to last Sunday’s (April 21) tragedy and we try to understand it,” the cardinal said at his official residence, where President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister (PM) Ranil Wickremesinghe were among the small congregation.

“We pray that in this country there will be peace and co-existence and understanding each other without division,” he said.

“What happened last Sunday is a great tragedy, an insult to humanity,” he added.

At exactly 8:45am, the singing of hymns by scores of people outside St Anthony’s stopped and bells tolled.

The hands on the tower clock remain fixed at the time of the blast.

“I come to this church every Sunday. It feels like my second home,” said Dharshika Fernando, 19, fighting back tears. “It feels like people blasted my own home.”

Later in the day, the cardinal made his first public appearance since the attacks to participate in a candlelight vigil for the victims.

Speaking to reporters, he expressed fears that the official investigation into the massacre would end up a “flop”.

“There is a certain amount of suspicion among our people that there will be no more follow- ups, only words…if they (the authorities) are sincere, they must have a thorough investigation,” he said.

The cardinal has repeatedly assailed the authorities for failing to share intelligence reports that had warned of an impending jihadist attack against Christians.

Thousands of Sri Lankan troops remained on the streets, guarding churches and mosques for the symbolic day.

Security forces also carried out new arrests, a day after at least 15 people were killed in a raid on a jihadist hideout where suicide bombers blew themselves up.

Police said they searched the family homes of two of the bombers and arrested one of their brothers.

Elsewhere, more suspects were detained, bringing the number of people arrested since the bombings to 150.

The PM said security forces had killed or arrested most of the jihadists linked to the attacks, which he said were carried out by a “small, but well-organised group”.

“Most of them have been arrested. Some have died,” Wickremesinghe said in a statement. “Now, we are able to return to normality”.

In the meantime, authorities said they are also seeking about 140 followers of the Islamic State group.

Two of the latest suspects arrested, Mohamed Saadik Abdul Haq and Mohamed Saahid Abdul Haq, were on a list of six “most wanted” radicals issued last Thursday.

In a sign of continuing tensions, the reopening of schools across Sri Lanka, originally scheduled for yesterday, has been put back one week. — AFP