Sri Lanka says anti-Muslim riots ‘under control’

Sri Lankan Muslims remained nervous and stayed indoors in Ramadan after sword-wielding rioters killed one man while vandalising scores of shops and mosques.
Wednesday 15/05/2019
A Muslim man looks at damages inside a mosque after a mob attack in Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14. (Reuters)
A Muslim man looks at damages inside a mosque after a mob attack in Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14. (Reuters)

COLOMBO – Sri Lankan authorities said Wednesday they had the situation “under control” after mosques and Muslim-owned shops and businesses were targetted by mobs. 

Sri Lanka’s police arrested over 100 suspects and reimposed night curfews in violence-prone areas Wednesday after anti-Muslim riots left one man dead and caused extensive damage to homes, businesses and mosques.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said 78 people arrested in the worst-affected North-Western Province (NWP) were remanded in custody Wednesday, while the rest were detained after a manhunt in other areas.

Some 5,500 additional police were deployed in NWP to contain the violence that claimed the life of a Muslim man on Monday. Scores of private homes, Muslim-owned shops and businesses were destroyed, while several mosques were also vandalised.

Muslims in Sri Lanka have been bracing for revenge attacks since three churches and three luxury hotels were bombed by local Islamist extremists on April 21, killing 258 people.

Gunasekera said a night curfew was being reimposed in NWP, just north of the capital, as well as the adjoining Gampaha district, which shares a border with Colombo, as a measure to “maintain peace”.

However, a top police source said there will be no curfews elsewhere in the country. The entire country was under night curfews for two straight days after the violence escalated.

The night curfew on Tuesday ensured there was no repeat of Monday’s violence against Muslims, who make up some 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million.

“The situation is now totally under control,” said military spokesman Sumith Atapattu.

“There were no incidents of violence overnight and we are arresting groups of people responsible for taking part in mob attacks.”

Official sources said police deployed special teams to review CCTV camera footage to identify the perpetrators and carry out more arrests.

More police and army units were seen deployed in the troubled areas as the authorities lifted the nationwide curfew on Wednesday morning.

But Muslims in NWP remained nervous and stayed indoors Wednesday, after sword-wielding rioters killed one man late Monday while vandalising scores of shops and mosques.

Muslim villagers react next to the dead body of Mohamed Salim Fowzul Ameer, who died in a mob attack, during the funeral ceremony at a mosque in Kottaramulla, Sri Lanka, May 14. (Reuters)
Muslim villagers react next to the dead body of Mohamed Salim Fowzul Ameer, who died in a mob attack, during the funeral ceremony at a mosque in Kottaramulla, Sri Lanka, May 14. (Reuters)

In Bingiriya, where some 2,000 people went on the rampage, Muslim cleric M.I.M. Siddeeque said the community was worried.

“Our people are still afraid to go out,” he told AFP by telephone.

Government spokesman Navin Dissanayake said the authorities had identified the leaders of the mobs and they were already in police custody.

Despite the extraordinary security measures, the minorities felt insecure, said Dissanayake, who is also a government minister.

“People feel insecure and I acknowledge that,” Dissanayake told reporters in Colombo. “We have given the armed forces of this country… a complete free hand to tackle the security situation.”

Among those detained was Amith Weerasinghe, a man from Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist Sinhalese community and on bail for his role in similar riots in March last year in the central Kandy district.

Another was identified as Namal Kumara, a deserter from both the army and the air force.

The police, meanwhile, also made several changes in the command structure by removing senior officers in the troubled areas after allegations officials did nothing to stop the rioters.

The military released CCTV which showed a man in uniform apparently standing by while a mob pelted stones at a home, and sought public help to identify the individual.

Parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya condemned the violence and appealed for calm.

“The attacks on mosques, the burning of houses and shops, the attacks on innocent people cannot be condoned in any way,” Jayasuriya said in a statement.

The attacks came during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.

A state of emergency has been in place since the Easter bombings and security forces have been given sweeping powers to detain suspects.

Internet service providers said the telecoms regulator on Tuesday extended a social media ban to Twitter.

Earlier, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram had been blocked to prevent the spread of messages inciting violence.

(AFP)