Sri Lanka arrests 10 for anti-Muslim violence as towns smolder

KANDY, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Police in Sri Lanka said on Thursday it had arrested the suspected leader and nine others suspects behind a wave of anti-Muslim attacks by Sinhalese Buddhist hardliners in a central highlands region this week.

Sri Lanka's army soldier stands guard next to a damaged shop after a clash between two communities in Digana central district of Kandy, Sri Lanka March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka’s Kandy district has been rocked by communal clashes since Sunday following attacks on members of the minority Muslim community by nationalist crowds from the Sinhalese majority. At least two people have been killed.

President Maithripala Sirisena decreed a state of emergency in Kandy on Wednesday but crowds carried out more attacks targeting mosques and businesses belonging to Muslims overnight, residents told Reuters.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said all 10 people arrested belonged to hardline Buddhist group. He named the suspected leader as Amith Jeewan Weerasinghe and said he belonged to a group called Mahason Balakaya.

He said? this group had published videos of hate speech directed against Muslims.

Most of Sri Lanka’s Muslims live in the east and center of the island and make up about 9 percent of its 21 million people. Buddhists make up about 70 percent and ethnic Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, about 13 percent.

Residents in Kandy district said the death of a Buddhist youth after an altercation with a group of Muslims had triggered the violence.

Two days after the death, a large crowd of Buddhists brought a symbolic coffin to protest against the death of the driver in Digana town where most of the shops are either owned or rented by Muslims, residents said.

“First they burnt the mosque, there were even women among the attackers. Then they started to burn all the Muslim shops,” said 30-year old Mohamed Shifan. He said he had 3.7 million rupees ($23,817) lying in his car which he had collected to start a new electric goods business.

But a crowd set fire to his car and beat him up before he could escape.

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Some Buddhist nationalists have protested against the presence in Sri Lanka of Muslim Rohingya asylum-seekers from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, where Buddhist nationalism has also been on the rise.

“An upsurge of attacks against Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka has raised fears of a new round of communal violence,” the International Crisis Group said in a report.

On Thursday, shops were still smoldering in Katugasthota town where also mobs went on a rampage picking on the small stores and eateries run by Muslims. Groceries were strewn on the street.

Soldiers stood guard outside mosques in the area.

“The situation is improving and there have been no major incidents of violence reported in the last 12 hours,” said Major General Rukman Dias, the army commander in the area.

But he said the curfew would be re-imposed in Kandy as a measure of precaution.

President Sirisena appointed Public Administration minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara as the new law and order minister, a portfolio temporarily held by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after public criticism over government’s inaction to curb violence.

The Tourism Ministry said it did not expect any major impact of the seven-day emergency on the $4 billion industry.

Kandy is a prime destination for foreign traveler, famous for its Tooth temple in honor of Buddha, tea gardens and natural beauty.

“For tourists, this is not the ideal situation,” Henry Venturini, a 51-year old Italian tourist told Reuters. “There was nobody on the street when we went out in the evening.”

Sri Lanka was for decades plagued by war between government forces and Tamil separatists. The government defeated the rebels in 2009.

EU ambassadors said in a statement that the latest attacks were “very worrying” and it is important that the government bring the perpetrators to justice.

($1 = 155.3500 Sri Lankan rupees)

Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Shihar Aneez; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky