Sri Lankan soldiers in armoured vehicles on Tuesday patrolled towns hit by sectarian violence this week as residents recalled how Muslims had hid in paddy fields to escape mobs attacking their homes and shops.
Authorities said the situation in the worst-affected northwestern parts of the Indian Ocean island nation was under control after anti-Muslim mobs appeared to have moved from town to town starting on Sunday.
A man was stabbed to death and crowds attacked mosques and burned Korans in violence targeting Muslims for the Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels, mostly in Colombo.
“The Muslim community huddled in nearby paddy fields, that’s how no one died,” said one of a group of men gathered outside a white-and-green mosque with smashed windows and doors in the town of Kottampitiya.
A group of about a dozen people had arrived in taxis and attacked Muslim-owned stores with stones just after midday on Monday, they said, with the mob soon swelling to 200, and then 1,000.
Besides the main mosque, the mob attacked 17 Muslim-owned businesses and 50 homes, witnesses said.
Abdul Bari, 48, told Reuters his small brick shop had been burned down with a petrol bomb. “The attackers were on motorbikes, armed with rods and swords,” he added.
Others blamed the police for failing to disperse the crowd.
“The police were watching. They were in the street, they didn’t stop anything. They told us to go inside,” said Mohamed Faleel, 47, who runs a car paint business.
“We asked police, we said stop them. They didn’t fire. They had to stop this, but they didn’t,” he added.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera rejected allegations that police had stood by while the violence unfolded. He said the security situation was under control and the perpetrators would be punished.
“All police officers have been instructed to take stern action against the violators, even to use the maximum force. Perpetrators could face up to a 10-year jail term,” Gunasekera told Reuters.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said late on Monday he had given powers to the security forces to take strong action against those responsible for anti-Muslim violence.
Muslims form nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists, with a sprinkling of minority Hindus and Christians. Most Muslims are concentrated in the east, with scattered pockets in the west.