Sri Lanka attacks: Mass funerals held as nation mourns

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International desk, April 23: Sri Lanka has held its first mass funeral amid a day of mourning for the victims of Sunday’s bomb blasts.The death toll from the attacks on churches and hotels has risen to 321 with about 500 wounded, police said.

A state of emergency is in effect to prevent further attacks.

The Islamic State (IS) group claimed the attack on Tuesday via its news outlet. Sri Lanka’s government has blamed the blasts on local Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).

A BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka says the IS statement should be treated cautiously. As with previous attacks that the group says it carried out, it has provided no evidence for the claim.

Police have now detained 40 suspects in connection with the attack. A spokesman said they included a Syrian who was arrested “after the interrogation of local suspects”.

The mass funeral for about 30 victims took place at St Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of Colombo, which was one of the places targeted in Sunday’s blasts. Another funeral service was scheduled for later on Tuesday.

Earlier, a moment of silence was observed at 08:30, reflecting the time the first of six bombs detonated. Flags were lowered to half-mast and people, many of them in tears, bowed their heads in respect.

The state of emergency gives police and the military sweeping powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders – powers that were last used during the nation’s civil war.

The government limited access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram after the blasts.

NTJ, the group named by the government as the main suspect, has no history of large-scale attacks but came to prominence last year when it was blamed for damaging Buddhist statues. The group has not said it carried out Sunday’s bombings.

Negombo is usually bustling but today is very different. Most of its shops and businesses are shut, there is a heavily-armed military presence and the entire city is bedecked in white flags – a sign of mourning.

Everywhere, there is a sense of complete shock. People are discussing what happened in hushed tones. Many take pictures of the banners or try to put up bouquets of flowers between the iron grills on the perimeter of the church.

About 150 people are estimated to have died during St Sebastian’s Easter Mass.

There are so many funerals to conduct that they are being carried out in batches. Security is tight – people are not allowed to drive within a 1km radius of the church.

St Sebastian’s itself is strung with banners. Some have pictures of those who died, others have messages of condolence and condemnation. Huge crowds of people are walking in to pay their respects, many having travelled from outside the city.

Source: BBC and News Agencies