An AFP photographer at the scene at St Anthony’s saw bodies lying on the floor, some draped with scarves and clothes.
Much of the church roof was blown out in the explosion, with roof tiles, glass and splintered wood littering the floor along with pools of blood.
N. A. Sumanapala was at his shop near the church when the blast happened.
“I ran inside to help. The priest came out and he was covered in blood,” he told AFP.
“It was a river of blood.”
The blasts gutted restaurants at the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotel, and devastated the St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital.
Gabriel, who declined to give his family name, told AFP his brother was at mass at the church when the explosion ripped through it.
“A piece of roof fell on his head, and he was bleeding heavily from his ear,” he said.
“We are all in shock. We don’t want the country to go back to that dark past where we had to live in fear of suicide blasts all the time.”
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St Anthony’s, where he described “horrible scenes”.
“I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners”.
Police chief warning
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts, but documents seen by AFP show that Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches”.
“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” the alert said.
The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues.
The government ordered an immediate nationwide curfew “until further notice”, and a “temporary” social media ban “in order to prevent incorrect and wrong information being spread”.
The first blast was reported at St Anthony’s, followed by a second deadly explosion at St Sebastian’s in Negombo.
Soon after, police confirmed that a third church in the east-coast town of Batticaloa had been hit, along with three high-end hotels in the capital — the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury.
A manager at the Cinnamon Grand, near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, said a suicide bomber blew himself up at the hotel’s restaurant.
“He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast,” he told AFP.
Later in the afternoon, two died in a strike at a hotel in the south of Colombo, while a police source said a suicide bomber killed three officers in the suburb of Orugodawatta in the north of the capital.
President Maithripala Sirisena said in an address that he was shocked by the explosions and appealed for calm.
On Twitter, Wickremesinghe wrote: “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today.
“I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong.”
The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, described those behind the attacks as “animals” and called on the authorities to “punish them mercilessly”.
US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences on the “horrible terrorist attacks”, and Pope Francis in his Easter address at the Vatican spoke of his “affectionate closeness with the Christian community, attacked while it was at prayer”.
Embassies in Colombo warned their citizens to shelter in place, and Sri Lankan Airlines told customers to arrive at the airport four hours ahead of flights because of ramped-up security in the wake of the attacks.
Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.
There have been no attacks in Sri Lanka linked to foreign Islamist groups, despite local media reports that a Sri Lankan was killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group.
In January, Sri Lankan police seized a haul of explosives and detonators following the arrest of four men from a newly formed radical Muslim group.
Sri Lanka’s government imposed a nationwide curfew Sunday that police said would go into effect immediately and would last “until further notice”, after a string of deadly blasts.