ALUTHGAMA, Sri Lanka – Hard-line Buddhists hurled petrol bombs and looted homes and businesses in several Muslim towns in Sri Lanka, killing three Muslims and seriously wounding more than 50 people in the overnight attacks, authorities said Monday.
The attack was led by a mob from Bodu Bala Sena — or Buddhist Power Force — which rails against the country's Muslim minority.
The group has been gaining followers and is believed to enjoy state support. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's powerful defense secretary and the brother of the president, once made a public appearance supporting the group's cause.
Sithee Hameeda, a resident of Darga Nagar, one of the three towns attacked, said the mob broke into her home and stole jewelry and cash while her family hid in a room.
"Soon the house caught fire and we ran out because we could not stay with the smoke," she said. "We hid in the marsh and came back only after everything was over. Everything was destroyed we were left only with the wet clothes we were wearing."
The violence in the towns of Aluthgama, Darga Nagar and Beruwala erupted after a Sunday afternoon rally by Bodu Bala Sena. Video clips show the group's General Secretary Rev. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara telling the crowd that Muslim-owned shops in Aluthgama and surrounding villages were in danger.
Speaking to reporters in Colombo, Gnanasara said the violence was "natural" because Buddhists were angry over an alleged attack on the driver of a Buddhist monk.
"When people heard it they went out of control," Gnanasara said. "This is natural because the people were under a lot of pressure."
Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem accused his own government of failing to protect Muslims. Sri Lanka is still deeply scarred by the 1983-2009 civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Tamil rebels, but Buddhist-Muslim violence has been relatively rare.
"The law-and-order mechanism has failed to protect innocent people," Hakeem said.
He said three Muslims died in the violence. Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said 51 people were hospitalized with injuries.
Associated Press journalists saw dozens of shops gutted, as well as motorbikes and bicycles piled up in one place and set on fire in the rampage. Residents also said mosques were defaced.
The monks leading Bodu Bala Sena have amassed a huge following in recent years, drawing thousands of fist-pumping followers to rallies.
There have been few if any physical attacks on people, unlike in Myanmar, where Buddhist monks helped incite communal violence in 2012 and 2013 and even stood watch as Buddhist mobs slaughtered Rohingya Muslims. But many Sri Lankans and human rights workers are alarmed, saying the monks are creating communal divisions and giving Buddhism a bad name.
A curfew was in effect indefinitely.
Associated Press writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report from Colombo.