Escalating anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka claim first life

Sri Lankan police officers look at a damaged shop after a mob attack in Minuwangoda on May 14, 2019 (Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images).
Sri Lankan police officers look at a damaged shop after a mob attack in Minuwangoda on May 14, 2019 (Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images).

PARTS of Sri Lanka were under indefinite curfew on Tuesday (14) and social media banned after a man was killed by a sword-wielding mob in an escalating anti-Muslim backlash following the Easter terror attacks.

Violence broke out late on Monday (13), three weeks after Islamist extremist bombings killed 258 people, with mobs carrying out arson attacks including one involving around 2,000 people who vandalised a mosque, witnesses said.

A nationwide curfew imposed overnight was raised on Tuesday (14) morning except for the North-Western Province (NWP) where police said a 45-year-old Muslim man was killed in his carpentry shop by a crowd carrying swords.

Elsewhere in the province north of Colombo rampaging mobs, who outnumbered police and security forces, set fire to Muslim-owned shops, vandalised homes and smashed windows, furniture and fittings inside several mosques.

In the adjoining Gampaha district, men on motorbikes led arson attacks in the town of Minuwangoda, 45 km (30 miles) north of Colombo, local residents said.

“It was the men on motorbikes who started the violence. They were from out of town,” an owner of an electronic goods store said by telephone.

“After they started smashing Muslim shops and throwing petrol bombs, the locals joined in.”

He said police and security forces appeared to be overwhelmed and that by the time troops fired in the air to disperse the mobs it was too late for many of the shops targeted.

A pasta factory owned by a Muslim businessman was destroyed after unidentified attackers threw burning tyres into the facility, reducing it to ashes.

“There were security forces outside, but they could not stop the attack that happened during curfew hours,” the owner of the Diamond Pasta Private Limited, Ashraf Jifthy said by telephone.

“Police and security forces also did not do anything to put out the fire,” Jifthy said. “Three of my Muslim workers were injured while trying to escape from the burning factory.”

A mosque in Minuwangoda was also stoned.

“The Muslim community huddled in nearby paddy fields, that’s how no one died,” said one of a group of men gathered outside a white-and-green mosque with smashed windows and doors in the town of Kottampitiya.

In an address to the nation on Monday night, prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the unrest would hinder investigations into the Easter attacks that targeted three churches and three luxury hotels.

He added that he had given powers to the security forces to take strong action against those responsible for anti-Muslim violence.

In a separate TV address, police chief Chandana Wickramaratne warned of stern action against rioters and said that constables have been issued orders to use maximum force.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera rejected allegations that police had stood by while the violence unfolded. He said the security situation was under control and the perpetrators would be punished.

“All police officers have been instructed to take stern action against the violators, even to use the maximum force. Perpetrators could face up to a 10-year jail term,” Gunasekera said.

In the NWP, attackers systematically targeted mosques for two days, local clerics said. In the town of Kinyama, two mosques were smashed as the outnumbered armed police and troops stood by.

“About 2,000 people surrounded our mosque and smashed everything inside, even the bathroom fittings,” cleric MIM Siddeeque said by telephone from the curfew-bound town of Bingiriya.

Video footage of the unrest showed burning shops as mobs armed with sticks and stones roamed on the streets attacking Muslim-owned shops.

Police said the curfew in the NWP would continue until further notice.

“Security forces are assisting police who have been ordered to use maximum force to contain the violence,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Police said they fired in the air and used tear gas at several places to deter people attempting to attack mosques.

The attacks came during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. Muslims make up around 10 per cent of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka’s population and Christians about 7.6 per cent.

(AFP, Reuters)