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Sri Lanka steps up security after anti-Muslim attack


Sri Lanka boosted security for Muslim-owned businesses across the country on Friday after a clothing store was torched by hundreds of Buddhist hardliners, scaling up religious tensions.

Police said commandos of the elite Special Task Force were deployed in the Colombo suburb of Pepiliyana where mobs from the ethnic Sinhalese majority stoned and later set fire to a store and warehouse owned by Muslims late Thursday.

"We are deploying more mobile patrols in vulnerable areas" across the country, a senior police officer told AFP, declining to be named. He said extra police would be guarding popular Muslim-owned shops.

The authorities have not declared a motive for the attack that wounded at least three people, but official sources said it appeared to be part of the ongoing targeting of minority Muslim businesses by Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners.

However, the recently formed Buddhist nationalist group, the monk-led Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), denied involvement and urged the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.

"We condemn this attack in the strongest terms," BBS spokesman Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara told reporters in Colombo, saying he feared people impersonating the saffron-robed clergy could have been involved.

The BBS last month forced Islamic clerics to withdraw halal certification from food sold locally, claiming that it offended the majority non-Muslim population.

But Gnanasara said the BBS was only against Islamic extremism and wanted to continue living in peace with the moderate Muslim minority community.

The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella organisation of Muslim groups, said tensions had been ratcheted to a new high by Thursday's attack.

"It has created a fear psychosis among the Muslims," council president N.M. Ameen told AFP. "We know a majority of the (Buddhist) people do not support this type of activity."

Army units were called in to disperse Thursday's mob, who pelted stones, smashed parked vehicles and torched clothing at the Fashion Bug store.

"The situation was brought under control within a few hours," said police spokesman Buddhika Siriwardena, adding that no arrests had been made.

It came a day after Sri Lankan police set up a hotline to tackle complaints about anyone suspected of "inciting religious or racial hatred".

In January mobs hurled stones at another Muslim-owned clothing chain near Colombo, while Muslim businessmen have also complained of random stone-throwing, intimidation and calls for the boycott of their shops.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is a Buddhist, urged monks earlier this year not to incite religious hatred and violence.

The United Nations estimates that Sri Lanka's ethnic civil war claimed at least 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009, when Tamil rebels were crushed in a major military offensive.

Less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million are Muslim. The majority are Sinhalese Buddhist, while most Tamils are Hindu.