KINIYAMA, Sri Lanka – One person was killed in Sri Lanka on Monday as police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops and imposed a curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter bombings by Islamist militants.
A nationwide night curfew was relaxed in all areas except the North-Western Province (NWP) where a Muslim man was killed by a mob on Monday, police said, in a violent backlash against last month’s bombings.
The 45-year-old died of injuries sustained when a crowd stormed his carpentry workshop in the Puttalam district in the NWP and slashed him, official sources said.
Police chief Chandana Wickramaratne warned of stern action against rioters, and said that constables have been issued orders to use “maximum force”.
Elsewhere in the province, mobs torched dozens of Muslim-owned shops, vandalised homes and mosques in a day of rioting.
“The curfew in the NWP will be continued until further notice,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.
On Monday, police imposed the island-wide curfew from 9pm local time (15:30 GMT) to 4am, a police statement.
Curfews were previously limited to specific areas where attacks had taken place, including Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gamphala districts near Colombo.
In an address to the nation on Monday night, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said a countrywide curfew was declared to prevent unidentified groups orchestrating communal violence.
Wickremesinghe said the unrest would hinder investigations into the April 21 attacks that targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 257 people and wounding nearly 500.
Sri Lanka also temporarily banned some social media networks and messaging apps, including Facebook and WhatsApp, after a posting sparked anti-Muslim riots across several towns.
A police source said police had fired tear gas to disperse mobs in some places in North Western Province.
Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.
A Reuters reporter saw a mob of several dozen young Sinhalese men wielding sticks and rods in what appeared to be a standoff in the town of Madulla in North Western Province.
Many anxious Muslims were hunkering down at home but young men, some of them carrying rods, were still zipping around on motorbikes, despite regional curfews from 2 p.m. before the nationwide curfew was imposed.
Glass was strewn across the Abrar mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked overnight. All the windows and doors of the soft-pink building were smashed and copies of the Koran were thrown onto the floor.
A mosque official said the attacks were triggered when several people, including some Buddhist monks, demanded a search of the main building after soldiers had inspected a 105-acre (43-hectare) lake nearby.
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Authorities suspect lakes and wells are being used as hiding places to conceal weapons.
A 34-year-old man who was at the mosque said about 150-200 came toward the mosque with rods and swords on Sunday but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the police.
But they came back and this time there were about 1,300 people. The Muslims, huddled in the mosque, asked the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob, but the police said the people wanted to inspect the mosque for weapons.
Then the crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said.
“They destroyed and burned Korans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution,” he said.
Police spokesman Gunasekera did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But in an emailed statement he said there had been some damage to property in Hettipola area of Kurunegala district but no injuries reported.
The police source said police also fired in the air the Hettipola area.
Several dozen people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores and a man was beaten in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on the west coast on Sunday in the dispute that started on Facebook, police sources and residents told Reuters.
Authorities said they arrested the author of a Facebook post, identified as 38-year-old Abdul Hameed Mohamed Hasmar, whose online comment “1 day u will cry” people said was interpreted as threatening violence.
“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the government information department, told Reuters on Monday.
On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator, Dialog Axiata Plc, said it had also received instructions to block the apps Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube until further notice.
Rights group Amnesty International said there was “a worrying trend of attacks against the Muslim community coming out of Sri Lanka” following the Easter Sunday bombings.
The country’s main body of Islamic scholars, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), said there was increased suspicion of Muslims.
“We call upon the members of the Muslim communities to be more patient and guard your actions and avoid unnecessary postings or hosting on social media,” the ACJU said.
On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator Dialog said it had also received instructions to block Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and Youtube until further notice.
The latest unrest came as Catholic churches resumed their public Sunday masses for the first time since the bombings.
Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency since the attacks. Security forces and police have been given sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods.