COLOMBO A Sri Lankan government minister had to be rescued by police on Sunday after being trapped by ethnic violence between Buddhists and Muslims, officials and residents said.
At least 40 people were injured and mosques and shops were damaged in clashes that started at a protest march led by hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or the "Buddhist power force".
Junior Investment Promotion Minister Faiser Mustapha, a Muslim, was trapped when he visited a college in Beruwela, a tourist town 60 km (35 miles) from the capital Colombo, where hundreds of Muslims had taken refuge from the violence.
"There were groups of people who did not allow the minister to move out of Jamia Naleemia (college), where hundreds of Muslims have come for safety. However, with the police help he came out after an hour," a ministerial aide told Reuters.
"The special task force (elite police) has been deployed for the safety of Muslims in Jamia Naleemia."
Police in Beruwela and nearby Aluthgama where there was also fighting, imposed a curfew with immediate effect until further notice "due to the unrest between two groups".
There has been increasing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka since 2012, mirroring events in Myanmar, which has seen a surge of attacks by members of the majority Buddhist community against Muslims.
Residents said the clashes started after the BBS group threw stones at a mosque and Muslims retaliated.
“Police and special forces just tried to disperse Muslims using teargas and they did nothing to control those Buddhist monks and their riot mobs,” a local Muslim told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
At least nine other residents said hundreds of police on duty did not prevent the Buddhists from attacking mosques and houses.
The BBS said its members had been protesting peacefully, against an assault on a Buddhist monk by a Muslim youth three days ago, when they came under attack.
"It was an unfortunate incident. It shouldn't have happened. There are damages and casualties to both the parties," said Dilantha Vithanage, a spokesman for the BBS.
Hospital sources said at least 40 injured people had been admitted.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted: “I urge all parties concerned to act with restraint. An investigation will be held for the law to take its course of action to bring to book those responsible ..."
Many independent analysts say well-coordinated violence against Muslims and Christians appears to have tacit state backing as those involved in previous attacks have yet to be punished. The government denies any collusion.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)