Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard at entrance to the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo on April 21 2019 following an explosion. Picture: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP
Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard at entrance to the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo on April 21 2019 following an explosion. Picture: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

Colombo — Multiple explosions rocked three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka during Easter Sunday mass, leaving at least 138 dead in the worst violence since the civil war ended a decade ago.

The coordinated blasts took place at 8:45am local time in churches in capital city Colombo and the towns of Negombo and Batticaloa and in hotels including the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand. At least 400 people were injured and were undergoing treatment. Foreigners were among the dead in Colombo, Sri Lanka Health Services director general Anil Jasinghe said. Authorities said there were 27 dead and 67 injured in the eastern coastal town of Batticaloa, 62 dead and 110 injured in Negombo and seven dead, 24 injured in Colombo north.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said his government is taking immediate steps to contain the situation. ‘I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today,’ Wickremesinghe said in a tweet. ‘I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation.’

An emergency security council meeting had been called to review the attacks that seem to be coordinated, Harsha de Silva, minister of economic reform and public distribution, said by phone. ‘Rescue operations underway,’ de Silva said on Twitter. ‘Many casualties including foreigners. Horrible scenes.’

The attacks mark a return of violence to the country of 21 million people that’s still in rehabilitation following a brutal 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with at least 100,000 killed. Ethnic and religious divisions have plagued the island nation for decades — Catholics, split between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, make up 6.5% of Sri Lanka’s population, according to the nation’s 2012 census. More than 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 12% are Hindu and 10% are Muslim, the census shows.

The bombings in Sri Lanka — which will remind many of the brutal civil war era — come after a sustained period of political uncertainty following the president’s decision to fire his prime minister, said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank.

’Sri Lanka is just about recovering from a civil war and so obviously this is not a good sign for a country that could have an ASEAN-like growth track if it got down to it,’ Joshi said.

The attacks will also be a blow to the tourism industry and affect the stability of the rupee, said Adrian Perera, chief operating officer at Equicapital Investments in Colombo. “If the security situation is not stable, foreign direct investment will also take a hit, especially to the real estate industry,’ Perera said. ‘The government budget will be derailed. Foreigners will dump stocks and bonds.”

Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product growth in the quarter to December was the slowest in 19 quarters, while full-year expansion cooled for a third straight year in 2018.

The rupee has risen about 4.75% so far this year, recovering on foreign flows to bonds and remittances during the just concluded local New Year festival, after dropping to consecutive record lows last year amid a political crisis.

Security has been tightened across the country. All Easter masses scheduled for this evening have been canceled, the Catholic archdiocese in Colombo said, while schools that were scheduled to reopen for the new term tomorrow will remain closed until Wednesday, the education ministry announced.

• With assistance from Bibhudatta Pradhan

Bloomberg