Sri Lanka’s police will tighten security around the country in anticipation of Muslim protests after communal clashes left three dead and resulted in the arrest of 55 people in southern towns, the police chief told media on Thursday.
A special security operation will be put into effect on Friday as most Muslims gather at mosques to pray, Police Chief K. Illangakoon told reporters.
Over the past few days protests over the clashes have spread and Opposition politicians condemned the incident in parliament.
The move comes after the Muslim community in capital Colombo and the Eastern Province staged protests by closing their shops. They condemned communal clashes that took place in the southern Sri Lankan towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala that resulted in widespread violence with dozens of shops and houses torched.
The protests referred to as “Hartal” took place in five towns in the Eastern Province. “We wish to make a special appeal to all communities, especially Muslims to act with restraint. There are leaflets, Facebook updates and SMS being distributed by various bogus and illegal organizations calling for violence. We appeal to people not to fall prey to such machinations,” he said.
Government spokesman and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella who also attended the press conference joined the Police chief in reiterating that the law would be upheld to punish offenders arrested during the three days of tension.
Police rejected allegations of bias by pointing out that only seven of the 55 people arrested were Muslims while the rest are Buddhists. According to police records 31 people were injured of which 14 were Muslims and 17 were Sinhalese. Police have also received 138 complaints of vandalism and looting. “Within the framework of the law provided to us we will take action,” Illangakoon insisted as he was bombarded with questions from reporters.
He also pointed out that as Aluthgama was a large area police and police Special Forces were not able to provide blanket security with looting and torching taking place during police curfew. “We will always deny that police stood by and did nothing when shops and houses were being burnt and looted.” Defending the decision to allow hardline Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) to hold a rally in the town of Aluthgama despite appeals from the Muslim community, police insisted that they had talked to local community leaders and received promises that peace would be maintained.
Several hundred Muslim-owned businesses shut down in the Sri Lankan capital on Thursday to protest deadly riots by extremist Buddhists, defying President Mahinda Rajapakse’s plea to stay open.
Shops and restaurants in central Colombo were shuttered following the riots in two mainly Muslim coastal resorts popular with international tourists that left four people dead and Muslim homes and businesses razed.
“The protest is against the BBS and the police failure to protect our community,” a Muslim shop-keeper who declined to be named told AFP.
“We are also asking the government to take action against those behind the riots.”
A Sinhalese businessman said most of the shops in the normally bustling Pettah wholesale market in Colombo were closed.
The violence on Sunday and Monday nights was blamed on the hardline Buddhist Force (BBS) in the southern towns of Alutgama and Beruwala, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Colombo.
The closures came as police said a moderate monk who voiced opposition to the BBS had been abducted, beaten up and dumped by the road side outside Colombo early Thursday.
The monk’s condition was not immediately known. He was found by residents with his hands and legs tied in the town of Panadura, a police spokesman said.
The BBS, which has denied it was behind the riots, has been accused of targeting Buddhist clergy who opposed their hardline tactics.
President Rajapakse on Wednesday urged majority Buddhists and minority Muslims to ease tensions and take steps towards peace.
During a tour of riot-hit Beruwala, Rajapakse promised an investigation into the riots and appealed to Muslims not to go ahead with a “hartal” or strike, plans for which had been circulating among Muslim communities.
The riots are the latest in a series of religious clashes to hit the island following unrest in January and last year, when Buddhist mobs attacked a mosque in Colombo.
Muslims make up about 10 percent of the 20 million population, but are accused by Buddhist nationalists of having undue influence in the Buddhist-majority country.
The main Muslim party in Rajapakse’s ruling coalition, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), boycotted parliament on Wednesday, accusing authorities of failing to control the BBS.
Police said the situation was returning to normal in the troubled resort areas on Thursday, but troops and police were patrolling the streets to deter further violence.
The United States has led international condemnation of the violence, while Western embassies in Colombo have advised nationals holidaying in the area to stay indoors.