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Muslims demand UN probe into Sri Lanka religious riots

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama on June 17, 2014
A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama on June 17, 2014

The main Muslim party in Sri Lanka's ruling coalition Wednesday demanded a UN probe into one of the country's worst-ever religious riots, as President Mahinda Rajapakse toured the violence-hit resort region.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) said it was also boycotting parliament Wednesday as a protest against Colombo's failure to rein in a hardline Buddhist group widely accused of sparking the clashes.

Justice Minister and SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem told reporters Rajapakse's administration was at fault for letting the bloodshed escalate.

"We are convinced that the government did not do anything to prevent the violence against the Muslims," said Hakeem, who is the most senior Muslim in Rajapakse's cabinet.

Rajapakse, who was visiting Bolivia when the violence broke out, travelled to the resort region of Beruwala shortly after his return to the island and met local community leaders from both sides.

A Sri Lankan resident surveys the damage to a charred Muslim-owned home following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama, on June 17, 2014
A Sri Lankan resident surveys the damage to a charred Muslim-owned home following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama, on June 17, 2014

Hundreds of troops were deployed to help police after the extremist Buddhist Force, or BBS, marched in neighbouring Alutgama on Sunday, with clashes breaking out as it claimed its procession was stoned by Muslims.

At least four people were killed and nearly 80 seriously wounded, while dozens of homes, businesses and vehicles were torched, with violence spreading to Beruwala on Monday.

"I will get the military to help you rebuild your homes and shops," Rajapakse said, adding that he will hold an impartial inquiry.

Residents had complained that the authorities did little to stop the violence.

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard by a roadside following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama, on June 17, 2014
A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard by a roadside following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama, on June 17, 2014

The president made no reference to the SLMC demands to allow two UN experts -- the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues -- to visit the island.

"The government has for some time denied them visas to enter the country. But there is an opportunity now for the government to demonstrate its bona fides and allow the two UN experts to come here and start an investigation," Hakeem said.

The minister spoke with reporters as police announced they had arrested 49 people -- both Buddhists and Muslims -- overnight.

- Islamic body urges action -

"We have already arrested 49 and remanded 25 of them and further arrests will take place today," police spokesman Ajith Rohana told AFP.

The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation urged authorities to investigate and take action against those responsible.

A Sri Lankan muslim woman, made homeless after two days of anti-muslim riots in Sri Lanka’s tourist region of Alutgama, prays as she takes refuge in a makeshift camp at Beruwala, about 58 kms south of capital Colombo on June 18, 2014
A Sri Lankan muslim woman, made homeless after two days of anti-muslim riots in Sri Lanka’s tourist region of Alutgama, prays as she takes refuge in a makeshift camp at Beruwala, about 58 kms south of capital Colombo on June 18, 2014

OIC secretary general Iyad Madani said he hoped "every possible effort would be exerted by the Sri Lankan authorities to prevent a further escalation of violence".

"While appealing for calm and peaceful relations between the communities, Mr Madani urged the authorities to enforce the rule of law, investigate the incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice," an OIC statement said.

The attacks are the latest in a series of religious clashes to hit Sri Lanka following unrest in January and last year, when Buddhist mobs attacked a mosque in the capital Colombo.

Muslims make up about 10 percent of the 20 million population, but are accused by nationalists of having undue influence in the Buddhist-majority country.

The United States has led international condemnation of the violence, while Western embassies in Colombo have advised nationals holidaying in the area to stay indoors.