COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka sent troops and elite police to central Kandy district and imposed a curfew there on Monday to prevent clashes between majority Sinhalese Buddhists and minority Muslims after a mob set fire to a Muslim-owned shop.
Renewed tension has been growing between the two communities since last year, with some hard line Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalising Buddhist archaeological sites.
Elite Police were deployed in Teldeniya in Kandy district 160 km (99 miles) from the capital Colombo to control unrest after the attack on a Muslim-owned shop late on Sunday.
The attack took place following the death of a Sinhalese youth who had allegedly been assaulted by a Muslim mob, a police officer who declined to be named told Reuters.
Sudarshana Gunawardena, director general of the Government Information Department, said the “police curfew was imposed in the Kandy district until Tuesday morning”.
He said in a statement that those who violated law and order would face stern action.
“The police were put on alert to ensure that the enforcement of the law proceeds without hindrance and the situation does not spiral into an inter-communal conflagration,” Gunawardena said.
Military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said 200 military personnel has been sent to the unrest area at police request.
Muslims in the area, speaking to Reuters by phone, said some attacks on Muslim-owned properties had taken place after the start of the curfew, which took effect at about 3pm local time (09.30 GMT).
Police and some residents said Sinhalese owned properties were also attacked.
Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director at Centre for Human Rights and Research, a non-government organisation, said “police inaction to control the mob from arson attacks was a surprise, and police should take all steps to prevent the spread of ethnic clashes in the area”.
Rauff Hakeem, a senior Muslim minister in President Maithripala Sirisena’s administration, said the attacks bore the hallmark of good coordination and only targeted Muslim-owned properties.
Hakeem told Reuters via phone from Teldeniya that a number of shops and two mosques had been gutted. “The failure of the law and order machinery has resulted in this,” he said.
“The damage is unimaginable. This is clearly hate crime.”
Before the attacks, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse people including Buddhist monks who had gathered near a local police station. Police have already arrested four Muslim men over an alleged attack on the deceased Sinhalese youth.
The clash took place a week after at least five people were wounded and several shops and a mosque were damaged in eastern Sri Lanka.
Last year, diplomats condemned violence against Muslims and urged the government to uphold minority rights and freedom of religion after more than 20 attacks on Muslims.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have promised to protect minorities, but attacks against Muslims have continued while mostly Muslim-owned properties have been gutted and looted by organised extreme Sinhalese mobs.
Muslims comprise around nine percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million. Buddhists make up about 70 percent and Tamils, mostly Hindus about 13 percent.
The government ended a full-blown 26-year civil war by defeating mostly Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, with claims of atrocities on both sides.
The United Nations criticised Sri Lanka last year for slow progress in addressing war crimes and human rights abuses. The United Nations and rights activists have accused the Sri Lankan military of killing thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, in the last weeks of the war.
Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal, Editing by William Maclean