Hikkaduwa, May 16 (AP/.UNB) — Sipping fresh coconut water while sunbathing on deserted Hikkaduwa beach, Alexi Konchayenko, a sports trainer from Ukraine, struck a stoical note.
Bomb blasts can happen "anywhere, anytime," he said, adding that he was not afraid. "Sri Lanka is an amazing country. This is my first visit and I will tell my friends also to come."
His is a lone voice — and a lone presence. Sri Lanka was the Lonely Planet guide's top travel destination for 2019, but since the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and luxury hotels, foreign tourists have fled.
Many of those booked to come in the next few months have canceled. Hotel occupancy across the island has plummeted by 85% to 90%. The tropical beaches, restaurants and shops are empty.
The coordinated suicide bombings on April 21 not only destroyed lives but also wiped out the livelihoods of Sri Lankans who depend on tourism.
More than 250 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the U.S. and the U.K., died in the Islamic State group-claimed blasts.
Tourists normally come to Hikkaduwa, in the southwest, for the strong waves that are perfect for surfing and sparkling clear waters made for snorkeling. Today, of the 27 hotels, very few are open. Most, along with the eateries that line the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) stretch of palm-fringed beach, are closed.
Among the few hotels still open is Hikkaduwa Beach Hotel. On April 21, all 50 rooms were occupied; today, only a handful. "It's a real disaster. We don't know what to do right now," said Sanjeewani Yogarajah, an executive with the hotel. She said the attack has cost the hotel 5.5 million Sri Lankan rupees ($31,000), forcing the hotel's management to send half the staff home.
Some tourism officials say the damage to the industry after the bombings is worse than during the 26-year civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government which ended a decade ago. At least then, the violence was mostly contained to the north of Sri Lanka, they said. This time, no part of the island has remained untouched by the blasts.
Lankesha Ponnamperuma, general manager of hotel chain Hikka Tranz, is one of the luckier ones. While most hotels report wholesale cancellations, he is surviving thanks to business from local residents. Last Friday, two-thirds of the 150 rooms were booked, mostly by domestic tourists.
"I haven't sacked anyone yet. Instead, we are training our people to adjust their expenditure and helping them restructure their bank loans," Ponnamperuma said.
The president of Sri Lanka's Hotels Association, Sanath Ukwatta, said hotels have offered 30-50% discounts to entice local residents.
Such a strategy won't solve the problem, he said, but will "help at least to keep the hotels going."
The manager of a clothing shop said the owner had shut the group's other two shops and the factory too. "Business collapsed after April 21," said Kumari, who declined to give her surname.
According to government figures, there has been an 80% drop in arrivals since the attack. Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka's GDP. Last year, 2.3 million tourists visited the island, generating $4.4 billion in revenues, a nearly 12% jump from 2017. Around half a million Sri Lankans directly depend on tourism while 2 million depend on it indirectly.
One of them is Mohomed Musflick, the owner of a souvenir shop in Galle which is full of wood carvings, local paintings and postcards. "I have not sold one item. There are no tourists and we are in a huge crisis," he said.
While life is gradually returning to normal on the island with offices and schools re-opening, the tourism industry is in a somber mood over the slump in foreign tourists. Tour operators from Russia, Norway and Britain have canceled bookings going right up to April 2020.
A travel ban issued by nearly a dozen countries is the greatest cause for concern. "The ban is our main worry. Until it is removed or softened, we can't start our marketing to attract tourists. If it is lifted soon, we are hopeful we can bounce back this year or otherwise definitely next year for sure," said Yogarajah.
In the meantime, Sri Lanka's government should target "people and countries resilient to this kind of attacks and situations, such as Russia, Israel and India," said Anusha Frydman, managing director of the Lavanga Resort and Spa.
The industry is clear about what else it wants from the authorities: Ensure that stringent security measures are in place to reassure potential visitors; persuade politicians to put their differences aside and adopt a bipartisan approach on national security; and work fast to get the travel ban lifted.
To help the industry cope, the government has put together a relief package comprising easy loans at special rates and reduced taxes. The government also plans to formulate a $100 million insurance fund for compensation to any tourist injured or killed while visiting the island.
"In the past we have had many serious crises and we have recovered. I am quite positive we can do it again," said Jan van Twest, general manager of the Fortress Resort and Spa near Galle, where 750 room nights have been canceled from May to October.
"But we need to recover, recover very fast," he said.
New Delhi, May 15 (AP/UNB) — Rival political supporters on Tuesday clashed with rocks and sticks during an election rally by the Hindu nationalist party in eastern India, leaving several people injured and a university college vandalized.
Police say they used sticks to disperse the rivals as West Bengal state prepared for the seventh and final round of voting for 543 parliamentary seats in India's national elections on Sunday.
Several motorbikes and bicycles were set on fire, police said.
A big street procession, led by Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, was greeted with black flags by rivals who chanted "Shah Go Back." That triggered clashes between the two groups.
Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, a lawmaker member of the regional Trinamool Congress said the BJP supporters also damaged the statue of a state educator, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Police arrested 100 workers belonging to both parties after the clash, the New Delhi Television news channel reported.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP is seeking re-election in the voting held in phases. The counting is scheduled to begin May 23.
On Tuesday, top BJP leaders Nirmala Sitharaman and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi met Election Commission officials in New Delhi and demanded strict security arrangements to prevent violence in the state. They blamed rival Trinamool Congress party workers for violence.
Naqvi accused Mamta Banerjee, the top elected official of the state, with provoking her Trinamool Congress party workers to attack the BJP supporters. Banerjee denied the accusation.
The BJP is trying to improve its tally in West Bengal state, the stronghold of the Trinamool Congress party which controls 34 of 42 parliamentary seats. The BJP won only two parliamentary seats from the state in the 2014 national elections.
Colombo, May 15 (AP/UNB) -Mob attacks on Muslim communities in Sri Lanka's northwest have left one person dead and dozens of shops and mosques destroyed, a government minister said Tuesday, as communal violence worsened in the wake of Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people.
A Muslim man was hacked to death in Monday's violence in which members of the country's largely Buddhist majority ethnic Sinhalese attacked Muslim-owned shops and homes in several towns, said Rauff Hakeem, a Cabinet minister and leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
With communal violence also reported in Sri Lanka's west, the government imposed a nationwide curfew Monday and temporarily blocked social media and messaging apps.
Tensions have been running high in the Buddhist-majority Indian Ocean island nation since the April 21 attacks by seven suicide bombers who struck two Catholic and one Protestant church and three luxury hotels. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were carried out by a local radicalized Muslim group.
Sri Lanka has a dark history of communal tensions. For more than a quarter century it was embroiled in civil war as Tamil Tiger rebels fought to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. When the conflict ended 10 years ago, the U.N.'s conservative estimates said about 100,000 people had been killed.
Two United Nations advisers warned that the latest attacks against Muslims could escalate further if not stopped immediately.
"The country is trying to move forward from a traumatic period of inter-ethnic armed conflict, but these attacks are pushing Sri Lanka backwards. If not adequately dealt with, the recent violence has the potential to escalate even further," the advisers said in a statement.
The joint statement was released by Adama Dieng, the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Karen Smith, the U.N. special adviser on the responsibility to protect.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, appealed to the public to maintain the peace and patience they showed in the first days after the attacks. He said that he found no religious nuances in the violence but that local level politicians have been found in the mobs.
"I ask the political leaders to keep their followers under control. It is no heroism in attacking Muslims and damaging their property — true heroism is to control and overcome oneself," Ranjith said.
Colombo, May (AP/UNB) — Catholic officials and parents in Sri Lanka are hopeful that church-run schools will begin to reopen soon for the first time since last month's devastating Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels.
All of the island nation's schools were set to reopen the day after the bombings following a two-week break, but they remained closed after the attacks, which killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds more. Government schools reopened last week, but many children stayed home, fearing another attack.
Catholic schools, however, have stayed shut out worried that other Catholic properties could be targeted in further attacks.
In a memo to Catholic institutions earlier this month, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said he had information from a trusted foreign source that a famous church and a lay institution were to be attacked. The church confirmed that the memo, which first appeared on social media, was authentic.
On Sunday, the Catholic Church held the first regular Sunday Mass since the April 21 coordinated suicide bombings, amid tight security. Sunday services had been canceled the two previous weekends apprehensive of more attacks, leaving the faithful to hear Mass via live TV transmission from Ranjith's residence.
Later Sunday, Ranjith gave Sri Lanka's Catholic school administrators permission to reopen on an individual basis in coordination with local security officials.
Rangika Perera, a teacher in a Catholic school where her daughter also studies, said reopening the schools and churches was the best way to demonstrate that Sri Lanka's Catholics hadn't been defeated by terrorism.
"They want to deprive us in every way and we should not help them succeed by our fear," she said.
The Rev. Ivan Perera, the priest in charge of Sri Lanka's Catholic schools, said that Catholic school administrators have sent study packs to children by email with exercises on a variety of subjects, but that the toll has been more than academic.
Priests and nuns working as counselors said Catholic school students "are very traumatized and are very disturbed, a lot of fear in them," according to the Rev. Perera.
"It will take quite a bit of time for them to get back to normal attitudes. It's very unfortunate that at this age children should be so traumatized and be full of fear," he said, adding that when schools reopen, administrators will offer students psychological and spiritual help.
The Easter attacks — which were carried out by radicalized local Muslims and claimed by the Islamic State group — targeted three churches: Sri Lanka's famous St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, the capital; St. Sebastian's Church in the seaside, majority-Catholic town of Negombo, outside Colombo; and the protestant Zion Church on Sri Lanka's east coast. Three luxury hotels in Colombo — the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury — were also attacked.
There are currently about 40 schools run by Sri Lanka's Catholic Church, which owned hundreds of schools by the time the Buddhist-majority island gained independence from Britain in 1948. In the 1960s, the state nationalized hundreds of Catholic schools amid a post-independence wave of Sinhala Buddhist revivalism.
According to the Rev. Perera, an estimated 10 to 15 Catholic school students died in the blasts, including eight girls from the same convent school in Negombo. The United Nations children's fund said 45 children were killed in the six near-simultaneous suicide attacks, including tourists.
Though Sri Lankan adults lived through at least part of the brutal, decades-long civil war that ended in 2009, in which rebels from Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority violently clashed with government forces, younger generations had never experienced bomb attacks or armed soldiers standing guard on street corners.
"For the past 10 years, there weren't any of these things," said Anushka Wijeyeratne, a mother whose two children, ages 5 and 9, attend Catholic school. "Everything is new to them — the checkpoints and other things are absolutely new to them. As parents we have to go back to basics and rethink, we will have to worry about security."
According to conservative U.N. estimates, some 100,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka's civil war. Minority Catholics were not spared from the violence, but they were not targeted for their religious beliefs. Since the war ended, Sri Lanka experienced only a handful of small-scale incidents of communal violence before the Easter attacks.
Cardinal Ranjith has been an outspoken critic of the government for failing to act upon near-specific intelligence from Sri Lanka's neighbor India that provided details of the plot and the militants who were to be involved.
Parents say they trust the church's leadership more than the government's when it comes to the safety of their children.
"The government has failed and we don't have confidence in the government in that aspect," said Wijeyeratne.
But, she added, "How long are we going to sustain this sense of fear?"
Seoul, May 14 (AP/UNB) — North Korea on Tuesday called the U.S. seizure of a North Korean cargo ship involved in banned coal exports a "robbery" and demanded that the vessel be returned immediately.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, carried a statement by an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman who accused the United States of betraying the spirit of a summit agreement last June between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
Kim and Trump agreed then to a vague statement calling for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and improved bilateral ties, but a second meeting between the leaders collapsed in February over mismatched demands in sanctions relief and disarmament.
The seizure of the cargo ship, which was announced last week, came at a delicate moment in U.S.-North Korean ties, with North Korea resuming weapons tests that seem meant to force the United States to ease sanctions.
"The U.N. Security Council resolutions the United States mentioned as one of the reasons for robbing our trade vessel equate to a violent infringement of the sovereignty of our country and we have been entirely rejecting them," the KCNA statement said. "The United States should carefully consider what kind of consequences their daylight robbery could bring to the political situation and should send back our vessel without hesitation."
Before the United States seized the cargo ship, the 177-meter (581-foot) vessel, named the Wise Honest, had first been detained by Indonesia in April 2018 while transporting a large amount of coal. It was brought Saturday to American Samoa, where it will undergo inspections.
North Korea is banned from exporting coal under U.N. sanctions toughened in 2017 to punish increasingly powerful weapons tests that year. Experts believe coal and other mineral exports help finance the North's weapons industry.