Curfew in Colombo as tensions rise after mosque attack

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 US concern.

Police announced that a 13-hour curfew would be reimposed, starting at 6:00 pm (1230 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.

The government held lengthy talks with Muslim leaders and the clergy on both sides and announced what Technology Minister Champika Ranawaka described was a "just solution" acceptable to all sides.

Soldiers armed with automatic rifles were deployed at key junctions in the upscale area of the capital where the discussions were held after a day of tense clashes between Buddhist and Moslem mobs.

Local Buddhists had objected to the setting up of a mosque that replaced an older place of worship which the government had earmarked for demolition in line with city development work.

"The settlement we reached today is for the mosque to move back to its original position," Ranawaka told reporters. The government rescinded an order that required the demolition of the old building, he added.

"Through a just solution, we have now peacefully solved the issue," the minister said. Sri Lanka Muslim Council said it accepted the settlement.

However, hundreds of police enforced the night curfew in the area.

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 US 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 US, which in March initiated a UN 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.

"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.

Residents said temple bells summoned dozens of men who stormed the mosque Saturday 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.