Sri Lanka extends nationwide curfew after anti-Muslim riots

BBC News

Sri Lanka has imposed a nationwide curfew for the second night in a row after a wave of anti-Muslim violence in the wake of the Easter bombings.

A Muslim man was stabbed to death while rioters torched Muslim-owned shops and vandalised mosques during Monday’s attacks.

Police have arrested 60 people, including the leader of a far-right Buddhist group.

The United Nations has called for calm and a “rejection of hate”.

A nationwide curfew, declared for the second night running, will come into effect at 21:00 (15:30 GMT) on Tuesday.

The country’s North-Western province, where the worst violence flared, will be shut down for longer, police said.

Rioting there, north of the capital Colombo, saw police fire bullets into the air to disperse mobs marauding through several towns.

Tensions have been high since Islamist militants attacked churches and hotels three weeks ago on Easter Sunday, killing more than 250 people.

Sri Lankan soldiers on patrolImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionSri Lankan soldiers patrol a road of Hettipola after a mob attack on a mosque

In response to the rioting, the UN’s Colombo office has urged Sri Lankan authorities to “ensure that the situation does not escalate”.

It stressed the importance of holding the perpetrators and inciters of violence to account at this “critical juncture” if peace is to be maintained.

Muslims make up nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists. Mob violence in central Sri Lanka targeting Muslim communities in March of last year prompted the government to declare a state of emergency.

‘We are all living in fear’

In a northern suburb of Colombo, a factory owned by a Muslim businessman was burned to the ground by a rampaging mob.

The trader, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC around 200 rioters broke through his factory’s gates on Monday night after running amok through a nearby town.

Once inside, he said they “started wrecking everything in sight”, shouting and screaming as they set tyres alight.

As police struggled to control the baying mob, several employees fled through a window, including one who suffered injuries after tripping and plunging 35ft (10.6m).

Security forces eventually calmed the situation down and the mob dispersed, but not before devastating the factory.

Media captionRioters broke into the factory and set tyres alight

“It seemed like they were really happy to tear our factory apart,” he said, estimating the damage to be worth millions of Sri Lankan rupees.

He filmed the extensive destruction wrought by the unidentified attackers, who he said were “100% racially-charged to attack Muslims”.

A picture showing the damage done to the factory in Sri LankaImage copyrightHANDOUT
Image captionThe factory owner said several of his employees escaped through a window

Sri Lanka’s Muslim communities, he said, were all “living in fear now” amid a widespread atmosphere of distrust and recrimination.

“We’re afraid that this will be a Sri Lanka we don’t recognise any more,” he said.

He fears more attacks on Muslims are possible if the Sri Lankan government does not take precautions against the threat of racial violence.

How did the violence unfold?

The unrest centred on districts north of the capital, Colombo:

  • In the north-western town of Kiniyama, hundreds of people stormed a mosque, destroying windows and doors and burning Korans, according to witnesses
  • In the Catholic-majority town of Chilaw, Muslim-owned shops and mosques were attacked after a dispute that started on Facebook, police said
  • A man died from stab wounds after a mob attacked his business in Puttalam District, also in Sri Lanka’s north-west
  • Incidents were reported in the town of Hettipola, where at least three shops were reportedly torched
  • A large pasta factory was burned near Minuwangoda, with the owners accusing police of standing by while employees were trapped inside

How have the authorities responded?

In a televised address, Police Chief Chandana Wickramaratne warned that officers would respond to rioters with maximum force.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has also appealed for calm, saying the current unrest was hampering the investigation into last month’s attacks.

Visiting Kuliyapitiya – a town where rioting happened – he said he would not allow the lives of innocent people to be disrupted.

The government says that security forces have restored calm to streets in the areas affected by violence and insist officers are preventing revenge attacks on Muslims.

A Muslim man at the Al-Masjidul Hudha mosqueImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionA Muslim man walks inside the Al-Masjidul Hudha mosque after a mob attack

Leaders from across the political spectrum have been pleading for calm and urging people not to share rumours via social media.

Officials have blocked some social media platforms and messaging apps, including Facebook and Whatsapp, in an attempt to curb outbreaks of unrest.

Map showing towns where violence has occurred

What happened on Easter Sunday?

On Sunday 21 April six near-simultaneous suicide bombs exploded at hotels and churches across the country. Hours later, two more bombs were detonated, with fewer casualties, as police closed in on those behind the bombings.

More than 250 people were killed in the wave of attacks which stunned the world and the country.

Police have blamed local Islamists for the Easter Sunday bombings and dozens of arrests have been made in the weeks since. The Islamic State group has said it was involved but has given no details.

Sri Lanka has a history of ethnic conflict and the latest violence has triggered alarm.

Separatists rebels from the Tamil minority community fought a violent insurgency against government forces for decades until the civil war ended in 2009.