Damascus bomb kills 14, then army shells fall on rebel area killing 12

DAMASCUS/AMMAN (Reuters) – A blast on an army bus in Damascus on Wednesday killed 14 people, state media reported, the deadliest bombing in the Syrian capital in years, quickly followed by army shelling in rebel-held Idlib which rescue workers said killed 12 people.

The bus carrying troops was blown up near a bridge in the center of Damascus. A military source quoted by state media said two bombs had been attached to the vehicle in advance. Army engineers defused a third.

Syrian state TV posted images of the charred bus, and rescue workers could be seen removing body parts. A number of people were wounded, state media said.

About an hour after the bus blast, shells rained down on Ariha in Idlib in the northwest of the country, one of the last areas still held by rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

Four children and a teacher on their way to school were among those confirmed killed, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, called it the deadliest attack on Idlib since March 2020. Rescue workers said at least 30 people were wounded.

“The numbers of children injured and killed continue to increase,” UNICEF said in a statement.

In an apparent third incident, Iran’s state-run Al-Alam TV reported a blast during maintenance at a Syrian army ammunition depot that killed five people and injured four on the road between the cities of Homs and Hama. It did not identify those killed. Iranian forces have backed the Syrian government.

A decade of conflict in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people, although major fighting has mostly died down in recent years with the government of Assad now in control of nearly all major cities and towns.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Damascus bombing, and the Syrian army and state media were silent about the subsequent shelling of Idlib.

Attacks in Damascus have been rare since the army crushed rebel enclaves around the city with backing from Russia and Iran-backed forces in 2018.

Dozens of people were killed in Damascus in 2017 in several suicide attacks claimed by jihadists, including two against police stations which Islamic State said it carried out.

Islamic State militants still operate in the deserts of central and eastern Syria, where they have mounted several attacks this year on army vehicles.

U.N.-backed efforts to reach a political settlement to the war, which have so far made little progress, took a step forward on Sunday when the U.N. envoy said the government and opposition had agreed to draft a new constitution.

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Jonathan Spicer in Turkey; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli/Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Colombia arrests 10 over bombing, shooting of president’s helicopter

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia arrested 10 people accused of involvement in attacks on a helicopter carrying President Ivan Duque and a military base last month that officials said on Thursday were planned by former FARC rebel leaders based in Venezuela.

The car bombing at the base in the northeastern city of Cucuta, home to the army’s 30th brigade, wounded 44 people, including two U.S. military advisers. Later in June, a helicopter approaching city with Duque and other officials aboard was strafed by bullets.

The 10 people captured in Norte de Santander province are former FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa said in a press conference broadcast via social media, and belong to the dissidents’ 33rd front.

Three took part in the planning and execution of both attacks and have been detained and charged, while another is a retired army captain, Barbosa said.

Orders to carry out the attacks came from former FARC leaders who are operating from Venezuela, Defense Minister Diego Molano said during the conference.

He said the incidents demonstrated the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sheltered FARC dissidents, calling them “terrorists”.

“It’s clear that this attack against the president, against the 30th brigade, was planned from Venezuela,” Molano said.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Colombia’s government has long accused Maduro of turning a blind eye to the presence of Colombian rebels on his country’s territory. Maduro, in turn, has said Venezuela is a victim of criminals from Colombia.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin in Bogota; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Editing by Joe Bavier)

Days after bombing, Afghans despair at three-day limit to ceasefire

KABUL (Reuters) – An announcement by the Taliban that they would cease fire for three days for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr has been met by many Afghans with little but despair, just days after a bombing that killed at least 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.

The insurgents said late on Sunday they were offering the pause in fighting so Afghans could celebrate Eid in peace. The truce is meant to come into force on Thursday morning, at a critical moment with U.S. forces in the process of withdrawing after 20 years.

But many Afghans described the short holiday pause in fighting as a fruitless gesture. The Taliban observed a similar truce last year.

“If a ceasefire had been declared some days ago, perhaps these schoolgirls would have been alive and celebrating Eid with their families,” said Shah Wali, a Kabul shopkeeper, referring to Saturday’s bomb attack on a girls school mainly attended by Shi’ite Muslim members of the Hazara ethnic minority.

“It is a good and appropriate action, but not only on the three days of Eid… we want a permanent ceasefire,” he told Reuters.

The Taliban have condemned Saturday’s bombing, which U.S. officials suspect may have been the work of a rival militant group, such as Islamic State.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about Afghans calling for a longer ceasefire in the wake of the bombing.

University student Shugufa Azaryoon, 22, said she did not welcome the ceasefire at all. Previous ceasefires had been used by Taliban fighters only to regroup and launch attacks after Eid, she said.

PERMANENT CEASEFIRE HASHTAG

The Afghan government wants the Taliban to agree to a more comprehensive ceasefire to promote political talks. The Taliban say they want to lay down their arms, but cannot do so permanently until a political settlement is reached.

Meanwhile, the hashtag “AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire” trended in Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter in the lead up to Eid, which marks the end of the Ramadan holy fasting month.

Facebook user Sadaf Jamali wrote: “I kill people in Ramadan, I don’t kill people in Eid, but after Eid I will (kill) them again…This is Taliban’s logic #AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire”.

A day before the ceasefire was to begin, Taliban insurgents launched an offensive and took control of a key district located an hour’s drive from the capital Kabul.

Washington, which is pulling its remaining troops out of Afghanistan over the next four months, had long said its withdrawal was conditional on the Taliban reducing violence, but now says it is leaving no matter what.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the announcement of the three-day ceasefire, but said on Twitter that “Afghans deserve much more: a political settlement & a permanent ceasefire.”

Government employee Saifullah Khan said the three-day ceasefire did not leave enough time to travel to spend the holiday with his family, who live in a village two-days’ journey away.

“I wish they had announced a longer ceasefire,” he said. “Like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans I have to wait for a real and permanent ceasefire…only a miracle can make this possible.”

(Reporting by Kabul newsroom; Editing by Peter Graff)

In first for Europe, Iran envoy sentenced to 20-year prison term over bomb plot

By Clement Rossignol and Robin Emmott

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) – An Iranian diplomat accused of planning to bomb a meeting of an exiled opposition group was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday in the first trial of an Iranian official for suspected terrorism in Europe since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Assadolah Assadi was found guilty of attempted terrorism after a foiled plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) near Paris in June 2018, Belgian prosecution lawyers and civil parties to the prosecution said.

The third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna, he was arrested in Germany before being transferred to Belgium for trial. French officials said he was running an Iranian state intelligence network and was acting on orders from Tehran.

Assadi did not attend his hearings, which were held behind closed doors under high security, and neither he nor his lawyer have commented.

In March, Assadi warned authorities of possible retaliation by unidentified groups if he was found guilty, according to a police document obtained by Reuters. The courtroom was heavily guarded, with armored vehicles outside and police helicopters overhead.

In a statement carried by Iranian state television, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said: “Unfortunately, Belgium and some European countries, under the influence of the hostile atmosphere of a terrorist group, have taken such an illegal and unjustifiable action.

“Therefore,” he said, “they must be held accountable for the gross violation of the rights of our country’s diplomats.”

Prosecution lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier said outside the court in Antwerp: “The ruling shows two things: A diplomat doesn’t have immunity for criminal acts…and the responsibility of the Iranian state in what could have been carnage.”

COMMERCIAL FLIGHT

Investigators assessed that Assadi brought the explosives for the plot with him on a commercial flight to Austria from Iran, according to Belgium’s federal prosecutor.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani gave the keynote address at the rally, which was attended by diplomats from many countries.

The ruling came at a sensitive time for Western relations with Iran. New U.S. President Joe Biden is considering whether to lift economic sanctions on Iran re-imposed by Trump and rejoin fellow world powers in the historic 2015 accord with the Islamic Republic aimed at containing its nuclear program.

While the European Union has imposed human rights sanctions on Iranian individuals, Brussels has sought closer diplomatic and business ties with Tehran.

But it says it cannot turn a blind eye to terrorism, including the two killings in the Netherlands and a failed assassination attempt in Denmark, blamed on Iran.

“This case is not an aberration but rather is part of a pattern of the Islamic Republic’s terrorism in Europe and around the world,” said Toby Dershowitz at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington D.C.

Three other Iranians were sentenced in the trial for their role as accomplices, with 15-, 17- and 18-year sentences handed down respectively by three judges who did not comment on Thursday. One of their lawyers said he would recommend an appeal, although it was not clear if Assadi would do so.

In an interview with Reuters, NCRI chief Maryam Rajavi called the ruling a turning point as it proved Iran was carrying out state-sponsored terrorism. She said the EU could not stand by without reacting even if some in the 27-nation bloc were pushing for more dialogue with Tehran.

“Silence and inaction would be the worst policy and embolden the regime in its behavior,” she said, speaking through an interpreter, calling for EU sanctions on key officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who heads up nuclear diplomacy with the major powers.

“The European Union and governments must hold the regime accountable,” Rajavi said.

The EU declined to comment. French officials did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The Islamic Republic has repeatedly dismissed the charges, calling the attack allegations a “false flag” stunt by the NCRI, which it considers a terrorist group.

(Reporting by Clement Rossignol in Antwerp and Robin Emmott in Brussels with additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Marine Strauss, Philippa Fletcher and Mark Heinrich)

Authorities still searching for motive in Nashville blast

(Reuters) – Federal, state and local law enforcement officers on Monday were searching for the motive behind a bombing that rocked Nashville on Christmas morning, with evidence pointing to the 63-year-old suspect on a suicide mission that took only his life.

The FBI on Sunday identified the suspect as Anthony Q. Warner and said he died in the blast, which damaged more than 40 businesses in downtown Nashville, Tennessee’s largest city and the United States’ country music capital.

Warner’s motor home exploded at dawn on Friday moments after police responding to reports of gunfire noticed it and heard music and an automated message emanating from the vehicle warning of a bomb. Police hurried to evacuate people in the area, and Warner is the only person known to have died in the blast.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper has said that local officials felt there had to be some connection between the bombing, which occurred near an AT&T Inc transmission building on the city’s busy Second Avenue, and the building.

But officials have maintained it was too early in the investigation to discuss the suspect’s motives.

Council Member Freddie O’Connell, whose district includes Second Avenue, said officials have been reluctant to speculate about motive or to label the bombing an act of terrorism because it was still unclear whether Warner was driven by any ideology.

“It may be some time before we get even close to having some of these questions answered,” O’Connell said.

The explosion injured three people and damaged businesses, disrupting mobile, internet and TV services across central Tennessee and parts of four other states.

Investigators searched Warner’s home on Saturday and visited a Nashville real estate agency where he had worked part-time, providing computer consulting services.

Speaking to Fox News on Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee described the damage in Nashville as “enormous” and said he expected President Donald Trump would shortly grant his request to declare a state of emergency to assist the state.

“It was a indescribable blast and it’s destroyed businesses all up and down that downtown block,” Lee said.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. charges Libyan man in 1988 Pam Am Flight 103 bombing

By Mark Hosenball and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Monday unsealed criminal charges against a third alleged conspirator in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people.

The Boeing 747 exploded and killed 190 Americans. “No amount of time or distance will stop the United States and our Scottish partners from pursuing justice in this case,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr told a news conference Monday.

The suspect, Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, a former senior Libyan intelligence official, is charged with two criminal counts related to the bombing. He is in Libyan custody, Barr said Monday, and U.S. officials are hopeful that Libya will allow Masud to be tried in the United States.

The Justice Department said Masud worked in various capacities for Libyan intelligence, including as a technical expert in building explosive devices from approximately 1973 to 2011. It also alleged Masud was involved in the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle Discotheque in West Berlin, Germany that killed two U.S. service members.

In 1991, two other Libyan intelligence operatives were charged in the bombing: Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

Megrahi was found guilty in Scotland of the Lockerbie bombing in 2001 and freed in 2009 on compassionate release grounds before dying of cancer in 2012.

Barr said the breakthrough that led to Masud’s charges came after law enforcement learned in 2016 that the third alleged conspirator “had been arrested after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime and interviewed by a Libyan law enforcement officer in September 2012.”

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Bombing kills 18 in Afghanistan on eve of Eid ceasefire

A member of Afghanistan's Special Forces unit jumps from a wall during patrol in Pandola village near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 18 people, including Afghan security forces personnel, were killed in a suspected car-bombing in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, hours before a three-day ceasefire was to begin in the country for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officials said.

The ceasefire, announced by the Taliban, comes at a time violence has risen across the war-torn country as U.S.-brokered peace talks between the militant group and an Afghan government-mandated committee await the completion of a prisoner exchange between the two sides.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the bombing in a statement from spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The explosion targeted Afghan security forces in Pul-e-Alan, the capital of the eastern province of Logar and civilian casualties are also feared, according to Shahpoor Ahmadzai, the spokesman for the provincial police.

He added it was unclear whether it was a car or suicide bombing, but that security forces had gathered for duty in the city to prepare for security measures for Eid al-Fitr, which will be celebrated in Afghanistan on Friday.

The head of the province’s council, Hasib Stanekkzai, told Reuters it was a car-bombing and put the toll at 18 dead and 22 injured.

Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, 3,560 Afghan security forces personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report this week that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed in the first six months of the year, mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Wednesday to discuss the need to keep violence down by all sides after the ceasefire and the completion of the prisoner exchange, according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Mark Potter)

Shells fall in northeast Syria despite five-day ceasefire agreement

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Shells fall in northeast Syria despite five-day ceasefire agreement
CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (Reuters) – Shelling could be heard at the Syrian-Turkish border on Friday morning despite a five-day ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States, and Washington said the deal covered only a small part of the territory Ankara aims to seize.

Reuters journalists at the border heard machine-gun fire and shelling and saw smoke rising from the Syrian border battlefield city of Ras al Ain, although the sounds of fighting had subsided by mid-morning.

The truce, announced on Thursday by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia withdraw from an area controlled by Turkish forces.

The SDF said air and artillery attacks continued to target its positions and civilian targets in Ral al Ain.

“Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted.

The Kurdish-led administration in the area said Turkish truce violations in Ras al Ain had caused casualties, without giving details.

The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected U.S. retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.

Trump has praised the deal, saying it would save “millions of lives”. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told Fox News the ceasefire was successful even if halting fighting “takes time”.

Turkey cast it as a complete victory in its campaign to control a strip of territory stretching hundreds of miles along the border and more than 30 km (around 20 miles) deep into Syria, to drive out fighters from the YPG, the SDF’s main Kurdish component.

“As of now, the 120-hour period is on. In this 120-hour period, the terrorist organization, the YPG, will leave the area we identified as a safe zone,” Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul. The safe zone would be 32 km deep, and run “440 km from the very west to the east,” he said.

But the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said the agreement covered only a smaller area where Turkish forces were already operating, without giving details of how far along the border Washington believed it stretched.

The Kurds said it was limited to a small strip between two border towns that have seen the bulk of the fighting: Ras al Ain and Tal Abyad, just 120 km away.

RUSSIA, IRAN FILL VACUUM

With the United States pulling its entire 1,000-strong contingent from northern Syria, the extent of Turkey’s ambitions is likely to be determined by Russia and Iran, filling the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has already taken up positions in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds.

Jeffrey acknowledged that Turkey was now negotiating with Moscow and Damascus over control of areas where Washington was pulling out, which were not covered by the U.S.-Turkish ceasefire agreement.

“As you know we have a very convoluted situation now with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (Islamic State) elements all floating around in a very wild way,” Jeffrey said.

“Now, the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast and in Manbij to the west of the Euphrates,” he said. “Whether they incorporate that later into a Turkish-controlled safe zone, it was not discussed in any detail.”

LIFTING SANCTIONS?

The joint U.S.-Turkish statement released after Thursday’s talks said Washington and Ankara would cooperate on handling Islamic State fighters and family members held in prisons and camps, an important international concern.

Pence said U.S. sanctions imposed on Tuesday would be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent.

In Washington, U.S. senators who have criticized the Trump administration for failing to prevent the Turkish assault in the first place said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey.

The Turkish assault began after Trump moved U.S. troops out of the way following an Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan.

It has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with – according to Red Cross estimates – 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters potentially abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political storm at home for Trump.

Turkey says the “safe zone” would make room to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting, and would push back the YPG militia which it deems a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

A Turkish official told Reuters that Ankara got “exactly what we wanted” from the talks with the United States.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Dominic Evans, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)

Sri Lanka blasts were revenge for New Zealand mosque killings: minister

A man holds a cross during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Sanjeev Miglani and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Devastating Easter bombings in Sri Lanka were retaliation for attacks on mosques in New Zealand, a Sri Lankan official said on Tuesday, as Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated blasts that killed 321 people.

Islamic State’s claim, issued on its AMAQ news agency, came shortly after Sri Lanka said two domestic Islamist groups, with suspected links to foreign militants, were believed to have been behind the attacks at three churches and four hotels, which wounded about 500 people.

People attend a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

People attend a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Islamic State gave no evidence for its claim. The government has said at least seven suicide bombers were involved.

“The initial investigation has revealed that this was in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack,” junior minister for defense Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament.

He did not elaborate on why authorities believed there was a link to the killing of 50 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch during Friday prayers on March 15. A lone gunman carried out those attacks.

Wijewardene said two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts early on Sunday during Easter services and as high-end hotels served breakfast.

U.S. intelligence sources said earlier the attacks carried some of the hallmarks of Islamic State, even though it had not made an immediate claim of responsibility, as it usually does.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament investigators were looking into foreign links.

Earlier on Tuesday, Sri Lankan government and military sources said a Syrian had been detained among 40 people being questioned over the bombs.

“He was arrested after the interrogation of local suspects,” one of the sources said, referring to the unidentified Syrian.

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

FUNERALS

Tuesday was declared a national day of mourning and the funerals of some of the victims were held, as pressure mounted on the government over why effective action had not been taken in response to a warning this month about a possible attack on churches by the little-known National Thawheed Jama’ut group.

The first six attacks – on three churches and three luxury hotels – came within 20 minutes on Sunday morning.

Two more explosions – at a downmarket hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital, Colombo – came in the early afternoon.

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans, although government officials said 38 foreigners were killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

The U.N. Children’s Fund said 45 children were among the dead.

Footage on CNN showed what it said was one of the bombers wearing a heavy backpack. The man patted a child on the head before entering the Gothic-style St. Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Dozens were killed there.

The bombs brought a shattering end to a relative calm that had existed in the Buddhist-majority Indian Ocean island since a bitter civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

The government imposed emergency rule at midnight on Monday, giving police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders.

An overnight curfew has also been imposed since Sunday.

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

FBI TO HELP

U.S. President Donald Trump called Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Monday to pledge U.S. support in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The Washington Post quoted an unidentified law enforcement official as saying Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were being sent to Sri Lanka to help with the investigation.

The FBI had offered expertise to test evidence and analysts were scouring databases for information, the Post said. Counter-terrorism officials from Britain were also due on Tuesday, a Western diplomat in Colombo said.

The attacks have also underlined concern over fractures in Sri Lanka’s government, and whether the discord prevented action that might have stopped them.

The government received a tip-off from India this month about a possible attack on churches by the National Thawheed Jama’ut.

It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken in response. A government minister said on Monday that Wickremesinghe had not been informed about the warning and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year only to be forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court. Their relationship is reported to be fraught.

The U.S. State Department said in a travel advisory “terrorist groups” were possibly plotting more attacks in Sri Lanka.

China’s embassy warned its nationals against traveling to Sri Lanka in the near term because of “huge security risks”.

China is a major investor in Sri Lanka. The embassy said one Chinese national was killed, five wounded and five were missing.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock, Mark Hosenball and Kieran Murray in WASHINGTON, and Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo in BEIJING; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry, Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)