Sri Lankan security forces approach the site after a vehicle parked near St. Anthony's shrine exploded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019.
Sri Lankan security forces approach the site after a vehicle parked near St. Anthony's shrine exploded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019.

VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

NEW DELHI, INDIA — Sri Lanka is imposing a state of emergency after blaming a little-known radical Islamist group for the series of devastating blasts that killed 300 people and injured hundreds of others on Easter Sunday.

A police spokesman said Tuesday 40 people have been taken into custody in connection with the massacre, which marks the deadliest violence to hit the South Asian island nation since their two-decade civil war ended in 2009. The spokesman also said the death toll has risen to 310. 

The government said it is investigating whether the group had links to foreign terrorist organizations, even as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe confirmed the country had received prior warning of the attacks from a foreign intelligence agency.

The sophisticated planning behind the eight blasts, which targeted churches and hotels, shattered a decade-long calm in the island nation and unnerved investigators and officials.

Dead bodies of victims lie inside St. Sebastian's
Dead bodies of victims lie inside St. Sebastian's Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019.

"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters. "There must be a wider international network behind it."

President Maithripala Sirisena is expected to meet diplomats in Colombo on Tuesday to ask for help in tracing the possible links of the attackers to overseas militant groups.

U.S. officials said Monday those behind the Sri Lanka bombings may have been inspired by Islamic State, but cautioned that no final determination has been reached.

Officials said they believe seven suicide bombers belonging to the National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) group carried out the coordinated attacks that ripped through four hotels and three prominent churches, claiming a heavy toll and leaving a nation in shock. Not much is known about NTJ, which came to the attention of authorities last year when the group's members were blamed for defacing some Buddhist statues.

Fear of more blasts gripped the country on Monday as 87 bomb detonators were found at Colombo's main bus station and an explosion in a van parked near one of the bombed churches sent passersby fleeing. The explosion occurred while police were defusing a bomb.

Sri Lankans living near St. Anthony's shrine run f
Sri Lankans living near St. Anthony's shrine run for safety after police found explosive devices in parked vehicle, which later exploded in Colombo, April 22, 2019.

Streets in the capital were mostly deserted, and many businesses remained shuttered as a heavy police deployment continued in the country. Armed soldiers and bomb-sniffing dogs had replaced the tourists that usually crowd the beach facing the hotel district.

Six blasts that claimed the most victims took place Sunday when churches were crowded with Easter worshippers, and tourists and businessmen were having breakfast at the luxury hotels.

One of the suicide bombers had lined up for the breakfast buffet at a hotel restaurant, according to police. Two more blasts were reported in the afternoon.

The capital, Colombo, took the worst hit.

The White House said President Donald Trump called Sri Lanka Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to express his condolences over the blasts.

Sri Lankan security personnel walk through debris following an explosion in St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, on April 21, 2019.
World Leaders React to Sri Lanka Explosions
Several world and religious leaders condemned the explosions on Easter at Sri Lankan churches and hotels that killed scores of people. Dozens of foreigners — British, Dutch and American citizens — are believed to be among them the dead. British Prime Minister Theresa May said attacks were "truly appalling." "The acts of violence against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka are truly appalling, and my deepest sympathies go out to all of those affected at this tragic time," she tweeted.

The nationwide emergency in Sri Lanka, effective at midnight, gives police wide powers to carry out searches and interrogate suspects. Authorities said 24 people have been arrested so far, but police have released no details about the detainees.

Police also said that they will investigate if warnings that suicide bombers had planned attacks on prominent churches, hotels and the Indian High Commission had been ignored.

Sri Lankan police clear the area while Special Tas
Sri Lankan police clear the area while Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, April 22, 2019.

Media reports in India said the warning had come from Indian intelligence agencies.

"We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken. Neither I nor the ministers were kept informed," Wickremesinghe said.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been political rivals since the former attempted to replace him unsuccessfully four months ago, creating a divide in the government, according to political analysts.

FILE - Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasin
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (2nd R) arrives to visit the site of a bomb attack at St. Anthony's Shrine in Kochchikade in Colombo, April 21, 2019.

The country was no stranger to bombings and violence during a 25-year civil war, but the end of the insurgency in 2009 had restored tranquility to the tropical island.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said, "We are very, very sorry. As a government, we have to apologize to the families and the institutions about this incident."

Relatives place flowers after the burial of three
Relatives place flowers after the burial of three victims of the same family, who died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2019.

Some investigators said the targets — hotels and churches — were likely chosen to gain maximum international attention.

While most of the victims were Sri Lankans, 39 foreigners were among those who died, according to the latest count. Those killed include celebrity Sri Lankan chef Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter, who posted a photo of the family having Easter breakfast just before the explosion. 

The 1.5 million Christians in the mostly Buddhist country make up about 7% of the more than 21 million population.

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