Sri Lanka yesterday declared a nationwide state of emergency after riots targeting Muslims left at least two people dead and homes ablaze in a hill station popular with tourists.
The government said it was imposing the extraordinary measures after police failed to curb violence in Kandy, a central district famed for its tea plantations and Buddhist relics.
Heavily armed police commandos were deployed to restore order in Kandy after rioters defied an overnight curfew and went on the rampage.
“The government is taking all possible measures to protect the people, especially Muslims,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament. He said an inquiry had also been opened into security lapses by police that allowed mobs of Sinhalese rioters to burn mosques as well as homes and businesses belonging to Muslims.
The body of a 24-year-old Muslim man was pulled out of a burnt home yesterday. Police said two dozen people had been arrested in the wake of the riots.
The emergency measures, imposed for the first time since 2011, give the authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods, and deploy forces where needed.
President Maithripala Sirisena said the measures would “redress the unsatisfactory security situation prevailing in certain parts of the country”.
Sri Lanka’s Parliament yesterday issued an apology to its Muslim minority, which constitutes 10 per cent of the country’s population of 21 million.
The violence in Kandy, a city frequented by tourists and pilgrims, has threatened to reignite communal tensions that have roiled Sri Lanka in recent weeks.
The island nation was under a state of emergency for nearly three decades as government forces battled Tamil rebels in a civil war that ended in 2009.
The riots erupted on Monday after a man from the island’s mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority died at the hands of a Muslim mob last week.
City Planning Minister Rauff Hakeem described the riots as a “monumental security lapse” and recommended disciplinary action against those responsible for allowing the situation to deteriorate. He said the riots were concentrated in Kandy, but the government wanted to send a strong message following recent outbreaks of communal violence elsewhere in the country.
Mobs set fire to Muslim-owned businesses and attacked a mosque in the east of the country last week after a Muslim chef was accused of adding contraceptives to food sold to Sinhalese customers. The government has dismissed the allegation as baseless and ordered the arrest of those fomenting unrest in the area.