Curfew in Colombo as tensions rise after mosque attack

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Sri Lankan police clamped a fresh curfew on a Colombo neighbourhood Sunday, a day after a Buddhist-led mob vandalised a mosque in an incident that raised religious tensions and sparked U.S. concern.

Police announced that a 13-hour curfew would be reimposed, starting at 6:00 pm (12:30 GMT) across the residential and commercial areas of Grandpass district, which remained under tight security following Saturday's attack that left four people wounded.

Witnesses reported scattered stone-throwing in the neighbourhood Sunday as authorities deployed more police and paramilitary commandos to keep the situation under control.

Soldiers armed with automatic rifles were deployed at key junctions in an upscale area of the capital as government leaders held talks with Muslim politicians on ways to ease tensions.

Muslim ministers in the ruling coalition, including Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem, said failure to take stern action against those responsible for similar attacks in the past had brought about a breakdown in law and order.

"The notion that there are elements in our society who can act with impunity should be totally eradicated from the public perception that has now taken root in our society," the ministers said in a joint statement.

President Mahinda Rajapakse's coalition includes the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the country's largest Muslim political party.

The U.S. embassy in Colombo expressed concern at the violence and urged authorities to prosecute those responsible.

"This incident is particularly troubling in light of a number of recent attacks against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka," the embassy said in a statement.

"Targeting any place of worship should never be permitted and we urge calm from all sides."

The U.S., which in March initiated a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka over alleged war crimes against Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, also urged Colombo to ensure religious freedom.

Local Islamic clerics expressed concern in the wake of Saturday's attack, which followed Buddhist objections to the opening of the new mosque.

"We were surprised because we thought things were settling down," Fazin Farook, spokesman for the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Sri Lanka's apex body of Islamic clerics, told AFP.

"With this attack, we are worried again and we see this (anti-Muslim) trend continuing. We condemn this attack."

Farook noted that the latest violence came five months after the torching of two Muslim-owned businesses just outside the capital.

Three Buddhist monks and 14 others who were arrested in connection with the arson attacks in March were later freed when police and the victims did not press charges.

In another incident, radical Buddhists recently forced Islamic clerics to withdraw halal certification from food sold locally, claiming that it offended the majority non-Muslim population.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Council, an umbrella organisation of Muslim civil society groups, also expressed concern at Saturday's attack.

A security official told AFP Buddhists had objected to the new mosque, which was constructed to replace an older place of worship earmarked for demolition.

"The Buddhist temple had objected to the relocation of the mosque and the troubles started during Saturday evening prayers at the mosque," the official said, asking not to be named.

All four people injured in the attack, including two police constables guarding the mosque, remained in hospital Sunday.

Residents said temple bells summoned dozens of men who stormed the mosque and started throwing stones and beating up worshippers.

Several homes in the area were also damaged, they said.

Seventy percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million population follow Buddhism, while Muslims are the second largest religious minority with just under 10 percent after Hindus who make up about 13 percent. Others are Christian.

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