Europe braces for domestic abuse ‘perfect storm’ amid coronavirus lockdown

By Sophie Davies and Emma Batha

BARCELONA/LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Domestic abuse charities in Europe have called for hotels and holiday lets to be turned into refuges as they warned that coronavirus lockdowns would lead to a massive jump in the numbers of women fleeing violence.

Governments, support services and charities are scrambling to help thousands of women facing weeks of isolation at home with a violent partner during quarantine measures.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of British charity SafeLives, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help.”

Britain joined Italy, Spain, France and Belgium this week in ordering citizens to stay home to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 21,000 worldwide.

As the country shut down, charities urged employers, bank staff, healthworkers and neighbours to be extra vigilant, adding that even a note dropped in a grocery bag could be a lifeline for a woman trapped with an abusive partner.

In Spain, local authorities in the Canary Islands have set up an initiative that enables victims of domestic abuse to go to their pharmacy and request a ‘Mask 19’, a code word that will alert the pharmacist to contact the authorities.

Gender experts say rates of domestic and sexual violence rise when societies are under stress, during natural disasters, food shortages and epidemics – or even when a local football team loses a match.

In China, where the virus first emerged, anecdotal evidence suggests reports of domestic abuse doubled or trebled during its lockdown which began in January. A hashtag translating as #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic also went viral.

‘MASSIVE INFLUX’

Countries in Europe said it was too early to say whether cases had gone up.

But domestic abuse survivor Rachel Williams, who is running online support groups in Britain during the crisis, said she had heard of a 30% increase in some countries in lockdown.

“We are going to see a massive influx here, without a shadow of a doubt. The government must look at using hotels, bed and breakfasts and Airbnbs to keep women safe,” she added.

Williams, who was shot by her estranged husband after leaving him following years of abuse, said there were just 4,000 refuge spaces across the country, which saw 19,000 referrals last year.

In Italy – in lockdown since March 9 – refuges and support centres say they are struggling to operate and often lack masks and hand sanitiser for staff.

Coronavirus has killed more than 7,500 people in Italy, by far the worst affected country.

D.i.RE, a network of 80 centres, has asked the government to free up facilities for new domestic abuse cases to prevent them potentially introducing coronavirus into existing refuges.

One centre in the northern Emilia Romagna region is converting a former convent for use. Another in Padua is using holiday lettings site Booking.com to find apartments for women.

Some services in Italy are asking women to provide a negative COVID-19 test in order to access shelters, but tests are not widely available to people without symptoms.

CODED MESSAGES

In France, which went into lockdown last week, Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa has warned that quarantine will be a “breeding ground for violence” with emergency shelter provision a major concern.

France’s national domestic abuse hotline has seen a rise in calls this week, but helplines and charities elsewhere said calls had fallen as it became harder for women to reach out.

“We’re having trouble talking to women by phone as their abusers are on the prowl 24 hours a day,” said abuse survivor Ana Bella Estevez, who runs a support organisation in Seville in southern Spain.

Estevez, who fled her abusive marriage after her husband tried to kill her, said her charity would normally call women when their partners were at work, but was increasingly turning to text-based technology including WhatsApp.

The Spanish government has said it will shortly launch a chat service with geolocation technology enabling victims to contact the police, and another providing psychological support during isolation.

Madrid, Valencia and Andalusia are meanwhile looking to adopt the ‘Mask 19′ initiative, according to media reports.

In Britain, SafeLives said bank staff as well as health workers should watch out for coded messages abuse victims may give out when contacting them.

With many people having lost jobs or income during the crisis, Lloyds Bank – one of Britain’s biggest banks – has sought the charity’s advice on how to spot vulnerable customers.

As people set up new methods of home-working, SafeLives’ CEO Jacob said employers should also think about what their employees’ homelife is like and keep regular contact.

For someone living with a controlling partner a chat with the boss may be one of the few ways they can keep in touch with the outside world.

Jacob also warned that job losses would not only heighten women’s vulnerability to abuse, but could leave them stuck in dangerous relationships long after the crisis is over.

“It’s vital to protect people’s employment and income now to make sure they don’t end up trapped in abusive situations when we get through the other side of this,” she said.

Abuse survivor Williams, who has written about her experiences in a book called “The Devil at Home”, also urged the public to reach out if worried about a neighbour.

“Ask if they need any shopping. That could allow them to write something on their shopping list. Or, if it’s safe to do so, drop a note in the bag when you hand over the shopping,” she said.

“Don’t be a bystander. More so than ever before, domestic abuse is everybody’s business.”

(Additional reporting by Elena Berton in Paris. Writing by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

U.S. may convert thousands of New York hotel, college rooms into care units

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at converting more than 10,000 New York rooms, potentially in hotels and college dorms, into medical care units to help address the fast-spreading coronavirus, the commanding general of the Army Corps said on Friday.

The pandemic has upended life in much of the United States, shuttering schools and businesses, prompting millions to work from home, forcing many out of jobs and sharply curtailing travel.

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite told reporters at the Pentagon that the Army Corps was looking at converting the rooms and other large spaces into intensive care unit-type facilities and it would need to happen within weeks, not months.

“We’re talking about over 10,000 that we are looking at right now,” Semonite said, adding that a decision would be made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Earlier this week, the White House said it was in talks with the Pentagon about how the military can be deployed to deal with the coronavirus, including setting up field hospitals in states with a surge in cases.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for the Army Corps to increase hospital capacity. The Army Corps of Engineers is made up of 37,000 soldiers and civilians providing engineering services in more than 130 countries, its website says.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Leslie Adler and Howard Goller)

Top hotels sued for ‘industry-wide failures’ to prevent U.S. sex trafficking

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Landmark U.S. legal action was filed on Monday accusing several major hotel groups of profiting from sex trafficking on behalf of 13 women who claimed they were sold for sex in hotel rooms.

Twelve hotel chains were named and accused of knowing and ignoring warning signs that women and children were sold as sex slaves on their premises, according to the filing, a consolidation of 13 existing cases, in U.S. federal court in Columbus, Ohio.

The filing marked the first time the hotel industry – which has long been accused of serving as a breeding ground for sexual exploitation of women and children – faced action as a group.

The case drew together 13 separate actions that had been filed in Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia, Texas and New York.

Among those named in the 13 cases were Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Red Roof Inn, Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, Best Western Hotels & Resorts and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Inc.

Representatives of the hotel groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The milestone case was filed by the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg on behalf of 13 women, many of whom were minors when they said the trafficking occurred.

The hotels “derived profit” and “benefited financially” by “providing a marketplace for sex trafficking,” the case said, citing “industry-wide failures.”

“Such corporate malfeasance has led to a burgeoning of sex trafficking occurring in … hotels that has reached the level of a nationwide epidemic,” it said.

An estimated 400,000 people are believed trapped in modern slavery in the United States, from forced labor to sex trafficking, according to the Global Slavery Index, published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation.

“This is not one bad apple that need to be dealt with,” said Luis CdeBaca, former U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador-at-large.

“The entire barrel has a problem … For years the hospitality industry has known that sex trafficking and especially child sex trafficking has occurred on their properties and yet it continues to happen.”

One of the women in the complaint said she was held captive at age 26 at various locations of Wyndham Hotels for six weeks in 2012.

During her captivity, she said her nose was broken twice, her lip was permanently scarred and her face grew infected from repeated beatings.

“I just wish that people realize how much it really is here in the U.S.,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a shady hotel or a nice hotel, it’s going on in all of them.”

Several hotel chains have launched initiatives in recent years to tackle trafficking, such as training staff to identify potential victims and raising awareness of the crime among guests.

“These changes have arrived far too late,” said the court documents. “Profit motives, not adherence to the law, continues to drive their decision making.”

The case seeks unspecified damages.

Weitz & Luxenberg has earned a reputation in personal injury and malpractice cases against companies that made or used asbestos, which has been linked to cancer.

“This is bringing that expertise from the multi-district litigation space to see if it could have the kind of impact in the trafficking world that it’s had in other spaces,” said Bridgette Carr, head of the University of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Clinic.

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Father, two brothers of suspected Sri Lanka bombings mastermind killed in gun battle

A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alasdair Pal and Shri Navaratnam

KALMUNAI/COLOMBO (Reuters) – The father and two brothers of the suspected mastermind of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings were killed when security forces stormed their safe house on the east coast two days ago, police and a relative said on Sunday.

Zainee Hashim, Rilwan Hashim and their father Mohamed Hashim, who appear in a video circulating on social media calling for all-out war against non-believers, were among at least 15 killed in a fierce gun battle with the military on the east coast on Friday.

Kamal Jayanathdhi, the officer in charge at Kalmunai police station on the east coast, confirmed the three men had died along with a child that appears in the video, and that the undated clip in which they discuss martyrdom, had been shot in the same house where the gun battle took place.

Two people who were inside the house, a woman and a seven-year-old girl believed to be relatives of the men, survived, he said, while a woman was killed in crossfire on a nearby street.

Niyaz Sharif, the brother-in-law of Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the wave of Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the island nation, told Reuters the video showed Zahran’s two brothers and father.

Sri Lanka has been on high alert since the attacks on Easter Sunday, with nearly 10,000 soldiers deployed across the island to carry out searches and hunt down members of two local Islamist groups believed to have carried out the attack.

Authorities have detained more than 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt since the April 21 bombings.

On Sunday police in the eastern town of Kattankudy raided a mosque founded by Zahran which doubled up as the headquarters of his group, the National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ).

HOLY WAR

In the video, Rilwan Hashim is seen calling for ‘jihad’ or holy war, while children cry in the background.

“We will destroy these non-believers to protect this land and therefore we need to do jihad,” Rilwan says in the video, sitting beside his brother and father.

“We need to teach a proper lesson for these non-believers who have been destroying Muslims.”

Rilwan, who has a damaged eye and badly disfigured hand in the video, had recently been injured while making a bomb, Jayanathdhi said.

On Sunday, when Reuters visited the house, police were sifting through the wreckage, taking fingerprints and video footage.

Watermelon rinds and a box of dates were still on the kitchen counter, while four pairs of children’s flip-flops were by the front door.

But in the main room, where the three men filmed the video, a huge crater had punched a hole in the concrete floor, while bloodstains covered the wall.

LOCAL VIGILANCE

Two men had moved into the three-room rented house in the Sainthamaruthu area of Kalmunai, days before the Easter Sunday attacks, police and locals said. After more people arrived, locals grew suspicious, said Mohammed Majid, the secretary of the Grand Masjid Sainthamaruthu, one of the town’s main mosques.

After evening prayers on Friday, a group of men from the local Hijra Mosque came to the house to question the occupants.

When one man brandished an assault rifle, the men fled, alerting police who arrived shortly afterward. One man was killed after running into the street with a gun to confront police, while a series of explosions came from the house, eyewitnesses said.

DANGER REMAINS

Authorities suspect there may be more suicide bombers on the loose. Defense authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, the National Thawheedh Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

At a nearby house where police seized more explosives and a flag of the Islamic State on Friday, locals said they feared more violence.

“People were coming and going but we didn’t know their names,” said Juneedha Hasanar, who runs a shop at the bottom of the street, yards from the house. “Now we are afraid.”

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, and on Sunday the group said three of its members clashed with Sri Lankan police for several hours in Friday’s gun battle on the east coast before detonating their explosive vests, the militant group’s news agency Amaq said.

The group said 17 policemen were killed or injured in the attack, but the Sri Lankan military has denied this. A police source told Reuters two policemen were slightly injured in the battle.

Police have said six children were among the other 12 people who died in the gun battle, and on Sunday recovered the partial remains of a child no more than a few months old.

(Reporting Shri Navaratnam, Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO and Alasdair Pal in KALMUNNAI; editing by Richard Pullin and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Sri Lankan police hunt 140 people after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan Special Task Force soldiers stand guard in front of a mosque as a muslim man walks past him during the Friday prayers at a mosque, five days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on Catholic churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Sanjeev Miglani and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police are trying to track down 140 people believed linked to Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings of churches and hotels that killed 253 people, President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday.

Muslims in Sri Lanka were urged to pray at home and not after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence.

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka also urged its citizens to avoid places of worship over the weekend after authorities reported there could be more attacks targeting religious centers.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters he had seen a leaked internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and there would be no Catholic masses this Sunday anywhere on the island.

The streets of Colombo were deserted on Friday evening, with many people leaving offices early amid tight security after the suicide bombing attacks on three churches and four hotels that also wounded about 500 people.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said on Friday.

The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ullama, Sri Lanka’s main Islamic religious body, urged Muslims to conduct prayers at home in case “there is a need to protect family and properties”.

Police have detained at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations so far.

Islamic State provided no evidence to back its claim that it was behind the attacks. If true, it would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.

The extremist group released a video on Tuesday showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

DEFENCE, POLICE CHIEFS QUIT

The Sri Lankan government said nine homegrown, well-educated suicide bombers carried out the attacks, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman.

Sirisena told reporters on Friday some Sri Lankan youths had been involved with Islamic State since 2013. He said information uncovered so far suggested there were 140 people in Sri Lanka involved in Islamic State activities.

“Police are looking to arrest them,” Sirisena said.

Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic Islamist groups – National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – they believe carried out the attacks.

Government officials have acknowledged a major lapse in not widely sharing an intelligence warning from India before the attacks.

Sirisena said top defense and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned over the failure to prevent the attacks.

“The police chief said he will resign now,” Sirisena said.

He blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decade-long civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have often refused to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Cardinal Ranjith said that the church had been kept in the dark about intelligence warning of attacks.

“We didn’t know anything. It came as a thunderbolt for us,” he said.

The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that had existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since the civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended.

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.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 38 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

They included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Britain warned its nationals on Thursday to avoid Sri Lanka unless it was absolutely necessary.

Fears of retaliatory sectarian violence have already caused Muslim communities to flee their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.

But at the Kollupitiya Jumma Masjid mosque, tucked away in a Colombo side street, hundreds attended a service they say was focused on a call for people of all religions to help return peace to Sri Lanka.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said 28-year-old sales worker Raees Ulhaq, as soldiers hurried on dawdling worshippers and sniffer dogs nosed their way through pot-holed lanes.

“We work with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. It has been a threat for all of us because of what these few people have done to this beautiful country.”

 

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Exclusive: Sri Lanka warned of threat hours before suicide attacks – sources

People react 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 Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan intelligence officials were tipped off about an imminent attack by Islamist militants hours before a series of suicide bombings killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Three churches and four hotels were hit by suicide bombers on Sunday morning, killing 321 people and wounding 500, sending shockwaves through an island state that has been relatively peaceful since a civil war ended a decade ago.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on Tuesday, without providing evidence of its involvement.

Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defense source and an Indian government source said.

Another Sri Lankan defense source said a warning came “hours before” the first strike.

One of the Sri Lankan sources said a warning was also sent by the Indians on Saturday night. The Indian government source said similar messages had been given to Sri Lankan intelligence agents on April 4 and April 20.

Sri Lanka’s presidency and the Indian foreign ministry both did not respond to requests for comment.

Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively respond to a looming Islamist threat will fuel fears that a rift between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena is undermining national security.

The president fired Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisenahave often refuse to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Sri Lankan police had been warned weeks ago about possible attacks by a little-known domestic Islamist group, according to an Indian intelligence report given to Sri Lankan state intelligence services, and seen by Reuters.

Sirisena, announcing plans on Tuesday to change the heads of the defense forces, said his office never received the Indian report.

Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, an ally of Wickremesinghe, told Reuters that he was also not privy to the Indian intelligence findings.

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Sri Lanka imposes emergency, says international network involved in attacks; 290 killed 500 wounded

Sri Lankan military stand guard inside a church after an explosion in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka said on Monday it was invoking emergency powers in the aftermath of devastating bomb attacks on hotels and churches, blamed on militants with foreign links, in which 290 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded.

A family who lives near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their house as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A family who lives near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their house as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The emergency law, which gives police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders, will go into effect at midnight on Monday, the president’s office said.

Colombo, the seaside capital of the Indian Ocean island, was jittery on Monday. Police said 87 bomb detonators were found at the city’s main bus station, while an explosive went off near a church where scores were killed on Sunday when bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it.

A night curfew will go into effect at 8 p.m., the government announced.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack but suspicion was focusing on Islamist militants in the Buddhist-majority country.

Investigators said seven suicide bombers took part in the attacks while a government spokesman said an international network was involved.

Police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by a little-known domestic Islamist group some 10 days ago, according to a document seen by Reuters.

Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The intelligence report, dated April 11 and seen by Reuters, said a foreign intelligence agency had warned authorities of possible attacks on churches by the leader of the group, the National Thawheed Jama’ut. It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken on the tip-off.

Police said 24 people had been arrested, all of whom were Sri Lankan, but they gave no more details.

International anti-terrorism experts said even if a local group had carried out the attacks, it was likely that al Qaeda or Islamic State were involved, given the level of sophistication.

Two of the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo’s seafront, said Ariyananda Welianga, a senior official at the government’s forensic division. The others targeted three churches and two other hotels.

A fourth hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital Colombo were also hit, but it was not immediately clear how those attacks were carried out.

“Still the investigations are going on,” Welianga said.

Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Most of the attacks came during Easter services and when hotel guests were sitting down for breakfast buffets.

“Guests who had come for breakfast were lying on the floor, blood all over,” an employee at Kingsbury Hotel told Reuters.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said an international network was involved, but did not elaborate.

“We do not believe these ‘attacks’ were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

The president, Maithripala Sirisena, said in a statement the government would seek foreign assistance to track the overseas links.

Sri Lanka was at war for decades with ethnic minority Tamil separatists, most of them Hindu, but violence had largely ended since the government victory in the civil war, 10 years ago.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

FOREIGN VICTIMS

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans although government officials said 32 foreigners were killed, including British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

Denmark’s richest man Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife lost three of their four children in the attacks, a spokesman for his fashion firm said.

A British mother and son at breakfast at the Shangri-La, British media reported, while five Indian political workers were killed at the same hotel, relatives told Indian media.

The hotel said several guests and three employees were killed.

The U.S. State Department said in a travel advisory “terrorist groups” were plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka and targets could include tourist spots, transport hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship and airports.

There were fears the attacks could spark communal violence, with police reporting late on Sunday there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.

BOMB FOUND NEAR AIRPORT

Traffic was uncharacteristically thin in normally bustling Colombo after an island-wide curfew was lifted earlier Monday.

Soldiers with automatic weapons stood guard outside major hotels and the World Trade Center in the business district, a Reuters witness said.

An Australian survivor, identified only as Sam, told Australia’s 3AW radio the hotel was a scene of “absolute carnage”.

He said he and a travel partner were having breakfast at the Shangri-La when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.

“There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said. “Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don’t know if they were dead or not, just crazy.”

There were similar scenes of carnage at two churches in or near Colombo, and a third church in the northeast town of Batticaloa, where worshippers had gathered. Pictures showed bodies on the ground and blood-spattered pews and statues.

Dozens were killed in a blast at the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Police said they suspected it was a suicide attack.

Questions over why the intelligence report warning was not acted upon could feed into a feud between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the president.

Sirisena fired the premier last year and installed opposition strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead. Weeks later, he was forced to re-instate Wickremesinghe because of pressure from the Supreme Court but their relationship is still fraught as a presidential election nears.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Paul Tait and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Bombs kill more than 200 in Sri Lankan churches, hotels on Easter Sunday

Foreign relatives of a victim of the explosion react at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – More than 200 people were killed and at least 450 injured in bomb blasts that ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the first major attack on the Indian Ocean island since the end of a civil war 10 years ago.

Crime scene officials inspect the explosion area at Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Crime scene officials inspect the explosion area at Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The government declared a curfew in Colombo and blocked access to social media and messaging sites, including Facebook and WhatsApp. It was unclear when the curfew would be lifted.

But in a sign that the attacks on three churches and four hotels could lead to communal violence, police reported on Sunday night that there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwestern district of Puttalum and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the western district of Kalutara.

The government has acknowledged that it had “prior information” of attacks on churches involving a little known local Islamist group but didn’t do enough about it.

Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of around 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.

In February-March last year, there were a series of religious clashes between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims in the towns of Ampara and Kandy.

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

POLICE KILLED

On Sunday afternoon, three police officers were killed during a security forces raid on a house in the Sri Lankan capital several hours after the attacks, many of which officials said were suicide bomb explosions. Police reported an explosion at the house.

Thirteen arrests have been made, all of whom are Sri Lankans, police said.

“Altogether, we have information of 207 dead from all hospitals. According to the information as of now we have 450 injured people admitted to hospitals,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told reporters.

Government officials said that 32 foreigners were killed and 30 injured in the explosions that tore through congregations and gatherings in hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.

They included five British people, two of whom had dual U.S. citizenship, and three Indians, according to officials in those countries.

Also among the fatalities were three people from Denmark, two from Turkey, and one from Portugal, Sri Lankan officials said. There were also Chinese and Dutch among the dead, according to media reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. nationals were among those killed, but did not give details.

Police officials and catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Police officials and catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

PRIOR INFORMATION

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009, a time when bomb blasts in the capital were common.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe acknowledged that the government had some “prior information of the attack”, though ministers were not told.

He said there wasn’t an adequate response and there needed to be an inquiry into how the information was used.

He also said the government needs to look at the international links of a local militant group.

Agence France Presse reported that it had seen documents showing 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”. He cited a foreign intelligence service as reporting that a little-known Islamist group was involved.

A Sri Lanka police spokesman said he was not aware of the intelligence report.

BLOOD ON CHURCH PEWS

Dozens were killed in one of the blasts at St. Sebastian’s Gothic-style Catholic church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Gunasekera said the police suspected a suicide attack there. Pictures from the site showed bodies on the ground, blood on the church pews and a destroyed roof.

Local media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on an evangelical church in Batticaloa in Eastern Province.

The hotels hit in Colombo were the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury, the Cinnamon Grand and the Tropical Inn near the national zoo. There was no word on casualties in the hotels, but a witness told local TV he saw some body parts, including a severed head, lying on the ground beside the Tropical Inn.

The first six explosions were all reported within a short period in the morning just as church services were starting.

One of the explosions was at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church in Kochcikade, Colombo, a tourist landmark.

The explosion at the Tropical Inn happened later and there was an eighth explosion at the house that was the subject of the police raid in Colombo.

“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,” said Sri Lanka’s prime minister in a Tweet.

“Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”

President Maithripala Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.

The military was deployed, a military spokesman said, and security stepped up at Colombo’s international airport. Schools, universities and the Colombo Stock Exchange will be closed on Monday as the island state tries to recover from the attacks.

ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS

The Christian community had already felt under pressure in Sri Lanka in recent years.

Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organizations.

This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.

The heads of major governments condemned the attacks.

U.S. President Donald Trump said America offered “heartfelt condolences” to the Sri Lankan people and stood ready to help, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said there was “no place for such barbarism in our region”, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the bombings were “an assault on all of humanity”.

Pope Francis, addressing people in St. Peter’s Square, said: “I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day after his death on the cross.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, where a gunman shot 50 people dead in two mosques last month, said in a statement: “Collectively we must find the will and the answers to end such violence.”

(Writing by John Chambers and Martin Howell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean)

Cyber attack hits 1,200 InterContinental hotels in United States

The Logo of a Holiday Inn Hotel is pictured in Paris, France, August 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

By Alastair Sharp

TORONTO (Reuters) – Global hotel chain InterContinental Hotels Group Plc <IHG.L> said 1,200 of its franchised hotels in the United States, including Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, were victims of a three-month cyber attack that sought to steal customer payment card data.

The company declined to say how many payment cards were stolen in the attack, the latest in a hacking spree on prominent hospitality companies including Hyatt Hotels Corp <H.N>, Hilton, and Starwood Hotels, now owned by Marriott International Inc <MAR.O>.

The breach lasted from September 29 to December 29, InterContinental spokesman Neil Hirsch said on Wednesday. He declined to say if losses were covered by insurance or what financial impact the hacking might have on the hotels that were compromised, which also included Hotel Indigo, Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites properties.

The malware searched for track data stored on magnetic stripes, which includes name, card number, expiration date and internal verification code, the company said.

Hotel operators have become popular targets because they are easier to breach than other businesses that store credit card numbers as they have limited knowledge in defending themselves against hackers, said Itay Glick, chief executive of Israeli cyber-security company Votiro. “They don’t have massive data centers like banks which have very secure systems to protect themselves,” said Glick.

InterContinental declined to say how many franchised properties it has in the United States, which is part of its business unit in the Americas with 3,633 such properties.

In February, InterContinental said it had been victim of a cyber attack, but at that time said that only 12 of its 286 managed properties in the Americas were infected with malware.