Sri Lanka police announce arrests in anti-Muslim wave of violence

Buddhist mobs swept through Muslim neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka's central hills, destroying stores and restaurants and setting homes on fire despite a curfew, a state of emergency and a heavy deployment of security forces, residents said Thursday.

Canada among a number of countries warning citizens this week to avoid large gatherings in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's Special Task Force soldiers walk past a damaged mosque on Thursday after a clash between two communities in Digana central district of Kandy. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Buddhist mobs swept through Muslim neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka's central hills, destroying stores and restaurants and setting homes on fire despite a curfew, a state of emergency and a heavy deployment of security forces, residents said Thursday.

In the small town of Pallekele, mobs ignored the curfew that was supposed to keep them off the streets and used gasoline bombs to burn four homes, said Mohamed Nazar.

An angry crowd gathered around Nazar's house around 8 p.m. local time Wednesday, throwing rocks and shouting, so the family turned off the lights so no one could see inside. "Then a large flame came and the house caught fire," Nazar said.

His father hid under a sofa as the flames took hold, but Nazar grabbed him and they ran out. Authorities eventually put out the fire, but much of his family's belongings were destroyed, he said.

A man walks out of his damaged house after a clash between two communities in Digana. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Many residents of the area around Kandy, the main hill town, described a series of similar attacks since the violence began early this week. The streets of most towns were all but empty except for police and soldiers.

As evening began to fall Thursday, many Muslims worried that darkness could bring more attacks, and that police would do little to stop them.

"We can't trust the army and police. My shop has been attacked in their presence and I don't know what could happen tonight," said Mohamed Faraz, whose butcher shop was ransacked.

The government ordered a state of emergency Tuesday and later shut down popular social media networks, saying they were being used to spread false rumours that led to the attacks.

Sri Lankan police look at a burnt home in Digana. Police said petrol bombs were hurled at a mosque on Thursday as hundreds of troops patrolled a troubled central district facing anti-Muslim violence. (AFP/Getty Images)

"Technology created to bring people together is being used to pull people apart," technology minister Harin Fernando was quoted as saying by the Sri Lanka Mirror newspaper. "Social media websites such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber ... have been used to destroy families, lives and private property."

On Thursday, police said they have arrested the suspected leader and nine others suspects they believe are tied to the wave of attacks. A spokesperson, Ruwan Gunasekara, said all 10 people arrested belonged to a hardline Buddhist group.

In an updated travel advisory, the Canadian government urged people to "avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, as they have the potential to suddenly turn violent, and follow the advice of local authorities."

Call for 'urgent action against hate crimes'

Some see the violence rooted in the spread of hardline Buddhism.

Sri Lanka has long faced a bitter ethnic divide between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, fuelling a decades-long civil war as Tamil militants tried to carve out their own homeland.

But in the years since the war ended in 2009, a religious divide has grown, with the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups that stoke anger against the minority Muslims, saying they are stealing from Buddhist temples or desecrating them, or forcing people to convert to Islam. Muslims also own many of Sri Lanka's small shops, and many Muslims suspect small-town jealousy has led to some attacks.

Sinhalese are overwhelmingly Buddhists, while Tamils are mostly Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

"It is vital that all political leaders, religious and other community leaders condemn violence," the European Union ambassadors to Sri Lanka said in a statement Thursday, calling for "urgent action against hate crimes."

The violence and heavy security presence are largely limited to the island's central hills. In the capital, Colombo, and other cities and towns, there are few if any signs of trouble.

With files from Reuters and CBC