COLOMBO - Sri Lanka's police extended a curfew across two popular coastal resorts Sunday to contain religious riots that left at least 41 people wounded and heightened tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.
At one point elite police commandos were called upon to rescue a deputy minister who had been trying to bring the rioting to an end.
Police said they fired teargas and widened the curfew to Beruwala, a predominantly Muslim area, after initial violence broke out in the neighbouring town of Alutgama, 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of the capital Colombo.
Both areas are popular beach resorts frequented by international tourists, but there were no reports of any foreigners caught up in the violence.
However, local media said at least 41 people were admitted to three hospitals while many more sustained minor injuries during the rioting.
A Muslim deputy minister in President Mahinda Rajapakse's government, Faiser Mustapha, was trapped inside a school along with dozens of Muslims who fled their homes fearing attacks from hardline Buddhist mobs.
Official sources said police commandos were deployed to rescue Mustapha who had been talking to all sides to bring about an end to the unrest.
President Rajapakse, currently visiting Bolivia, said in a statement that he will not allow "anyone to take the law into their own hand".
"An investigation will be held for (the) law to take its course of action to bring to book those responsible for incidents in Alutgama," the President said on Twitter. "I urge all parties concerned to act with restraint."
Shops and homes attacked
Residents said Muslims were leaving their homes and seeking shelter in community centres after several shops and houses were set ablaze by mobs.
"Several Muslim-owned shops have been burnt and (their) homes attacked," a resident in Beruwala told AFP by telephone.
The two groups attacked each other with stones - the latest in a series of religious clashes to hit the island.
A police spokesman said trouble began when a group led by Buddhist monks held a rally in an area where there is a concentration of Muslims, who are a minority in the mainly Buddhist country.
There was no immediate comment from either side.
"The curfew was declared to bring the situation under control," a police officer in the area told reporters. "The curfew was extended to a neighbouring area to prevent an escalation of clashes." There were no reports of arrests.
The latest unrest came weeks after Muslim legislators asked President Rajapakse to protect their minority community from "Buddhist extremist elements" blamed for a recent spate of hate attacks.
Muslims make up about 10 per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million population.
Nationalist Buddhist groups have in turn accused religious minorities of wielding undue political and economic influence on the island.
Videos posted on YouTube have shown mobs led by Buddhist monks throwing stones and smashing a Christian prayer centre in southern Sri Lanka in January this year and attacking mosques while police looked on.
Senior Buddhist monks have also been caught on video threatening violence against their moderate colleagues who advocate tolerance.
Rajapakse, who is a Buddhist, warned monks in January last year not to incite religious violence.