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article imageSri Lanka remembers, one year after attacks killed nearly 300

By Amal JAYASINGHE (AFP)     Apr 21, 2020 in World

Survivors of Sri Lanka's Islamist suicide bombings which killed 279 people last year held a private anniversary service Tuesday as the nation paid sombre tributes and the US vowed to push for justice.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the Roman Catholic leadership to call off elaborate services to honour the those killed in the Easter Sunday attacks on April 21, 2019.

Instead, churches across the country rang their bells for five minutes.

The bells were followed by two minutes of silence from 8:45 am (0315 GMT) -- the moment the bombers struck. Even television channels went silent during the tribute.

Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to prevent a repeat of the attack, the worst against civilians in the island country which is recovering from a decades-old separatist war that ended in 2009.

St Sebastian's church  where a relative is pictured in a graveyard paying respects to the blast...
St Sebastian's church, where a relative is pictured in a graveyard paying respects to the blast victims, was one of three churches and three hotels attacked by followers of a local Muslim radical group

At least 45 foreigners, including five US nationals, were among those killed while nearly 600 escaped with injuries.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would push for justice.

"Just as the government of Sri Lanka works to hold those involved to account, the United States will not rest in its pursuit of justice for those who commit such atrocities," he said in a statement.

Some survivors, wearing face masks, attended a closed service at St Sebastian's church just outside Colombo, which was hit by a bomb.

At St Anthony's church in the capital, residents prayed outside and lit candles near a memorial for the 56 people who perished inside.

Seven followers of a local Muslim radical group attacked a total of three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo as Easter services and morning buffets were being held and set off explosives.

"We honour especially all those, who lost their loved ones and those who were injured, for their spirit of magnanimity in not reacting in anger and hatred," Sri Lanka's Catholic leader, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said in an anniversary message.

- Demand for justice -

Ranjith thanked minority Catholics for not retaliating against Muslims.

The attacks  blamed on Islamist militants  killed 279 people at hotels and churches
The attacks, blamed on Islamist militants, killed 279 people at hotels and churches

However, inter-communal riots did erupt three weeks after the attacks. One man was killed and hundreds of homes and vehicles were damaged.

The extremist National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group, was held responsible for the audacious bombings.

Cardinal Ranjith said the church has "spiritually forgiven" the attackers, but added that their supporters must still be brought to justice.

Four NTJ leaders were killed in a gun battle five days after the bombings. Another 135 people linked to the group remain in custody.

- 'A sad day for us' -

Instead of elaborate ceremonies  private services were held to mark the one-year anniversary because...
Instead of elaborate ceremonies, private services were held to mark the one-year anniversary because of a coronavirus lockdown

As Sri Lanka honoured the Easter Sunday victims, it was battling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed seven lives on the island.

The unveiling of special monuments for attack victims at two cemeteries was put off.

Plans to open a soup kitchen at St Anthony's were also scrapped due to social distancing rules.

A year after the attack, some survivors are still in hospital.

Saranya, 25, was nine months pregnant when she attended Easter mass at St Anthony's.

Her husband Christopher was killed, and their son was born the next day.

"My husband never saw his son," Saranya said. "My baby will be one year old on the 22nd, but how can we celebrate? It is a day after his father's death anniversary. It is a sad day for us."

T. Harshi's son was killed at St Sebastian's. She lost her left eye and is confined to a wheelchair.

"With the grace of God and the determination of all those who are helping me, I hope to be able to walk again," she said in a video interview released by the church.

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