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Mobs attack mosques, Muslim-owned shops in Sri Lanka

Colombo

SRI Lankan police fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse mobs attacking mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in several towns on Monday, as the country suffered a violent new backlash from the Easter suicide bombings.

Police and troops fought off hundreds of Christian-led rioters in at least six towns in North Western Province where a curfew was imposed, police said.

"Several shops have been attacked," said a senior police officer. "When mobs tried to attack mosques, we fired in the air and used tear gas to disperse them."

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The curfew started in the six towns but was extended across the province amid fears that violence could spread. There were no immediate reports of casualties or arrests.

"There is a strong political element to the riots today," the police officer said. "There are people trying to make political capital out of this situation."

Earlier, authorities banned Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms after overnight riots gripped several towns in the region including Chilaw.

Christian groups attacked Muslim-owned shops in a sign of the heightened tensions since jihadist suicide bombers attacked three hotels and three churches on April 21 killing 258 people.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe urged the public not to believe rumours and warned that civil unrest will stretch the already thinly deployed security forces.

"I appeal to all citizens to remain calm and not be swayed by false information," Mr Wickremesinghe said on Twitter, which was not targeted in the social media blockade.

"Security forces are working tirelessly to apprehend terrorists and ensure the security of the country, but each time there is civil unrest, we increase their burden and hamper ongoing investigations."

A state of emergency has been in place since the bombings - which the Islamic State group claims to have helped - and security forces have been given sweeping powers to detain suspects.

Police said a mob targeted Muslim-owned shops in Chilaw on Sunday in anger at a Facebook post by a shopkeeper. "Don't laugh more, 1 day u will cry," he wrote, and local Christians took it to be a warning of an impending attack.

The mobs smashed the man's shop and vandalised a nearby mosque prompting security forces to fire in the air to disperse the crowd on Sunday, but the violence spread to nearby towns where Muslim businesses were also attacked.

A curfew was imposed until dawn on Monday and reimposed after a 10-hour break. There have already been clashes between Christians and Muslims in Negombo, the town north of Colombo that was targeted by the suicide attackers. AFP