Mobs attacked several mosques, torched dozens of shops and homes of Muslims in Kurunegala, some 100 km north-west of capital Colombo, on Monday, in the biggest outbreak of violence since the April 21 Easter serial bombings.
A police curfew, initially imposed in six villages in the district, was later extended to cover the entire island until Tuesday morning, amid fears of the attacks spreading.
The government blocked social media platforms, including WhatsApp and Facebook, following the violence. Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake told local media that troops would not hesitate to use “maximum force” to contain the tense situation.
The incidents point to an escalation of violence targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, following the Easter terror attacks that the government had attributed to two local Islamist radical groups. The IS, too, had later claimed responsibility for the explosions that claimed over 250 lives in in Colombo, nearby Negombo and the Eastern city of Batticaloa.
The cluster of villages in Kurunegala district — Kuliyapitiya, Kobeigane, Rasnayakapura, Hettipola, Bingiriya and Dummalasuriya — witnessed much destruction, according to local sources.
“It began in the afternoon today. It was like they [the mobs] had planned to move from one village to the next, attacking our homes and property,” said a community leader in the area, who asked not to be named amid persisting violence, despite the curfew. “A group of men are still on motorbikes, making a big noise, while villagers are either indoors, or hiding in the nearby jungles in fear,” he told The Hindu.
At least three mosques were attacked late on Sunday in nearby Kiniyama, sources said. “One mosque has been almost fully destroyed. It will take us millions to rebuild it,” a source from the village said.
Kurunegala, an ancient royal capital, is a Sinhala-Buddhist-majority district which is home to nearly 16 lakh people. Muslims living here constitute 7.3% of the population, according to government data.
Hours after the attacks in Kurunegala on Monday, reports of similar incidents of violence emerged from Gampaha district, less than 30 km from Colombo. Earlier, on Sunday, Chilaw town near Colombo had witnessed dozens pelting mosques and Muslim-owned stores with stones, and a local man being beaten by a mob, prompting a police curfew.
In the wake of the ghastly Easter blasts, Muslim political leaders and activists — who vehemently condemned the attacks — had flagged the possibility of a backlash targeting the community.
Condemning Monday’s spate of violence, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said: “There is no difference between such racists trying to set our country on fire and the suicide bombers who detonated themselves.”
Former President and Leader of Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa, who represents Kurunegala in Parliament, urged citizens not to take the law into their own hands. Referring to the deadly anti-Tamil riots of 1983, he said the country should not go on a similar path again.
Colombo-based NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said on Monday that it was “alarmed” by the increased spate of communal violence against the Muslim community since the Easter attacks.
“CPA is also concerned about reports indicating inaction and/or delays in response to this violence by the security authorities, an unfortunate trend which has repeatedly been witnessed in the past,” a statement said.