Hundreds of Muslim refugees in western Sri Lanka have taken refuge in mosques and a police station amid concern of revenge-fueled violence following the deadly Easter bombings, activists said yesterday.
Many say Sri Lankans suspicious of their beards, their little-known faith and nationalities, shouted at some, throwing stones and hitting them with sticks. Others saw their homes attacked.
At least 359 people died in Sunday's coordinated suicide blasts, including more than 100 Christians attending mass at St Sebastian's church in Negombo on the island's west coast. Activists say some Muslim youths have disappeared, perhaps arrested by tight-lipped security forces, while others stay at home, fearful the bombings will spark retaliation from either the government or angry mobs in a nation where interreligious violence can strike.
Sri Lanka's Muslims make up about 9 percent of its 21 million people and mostly live in the east and center of the island. Mosques and Muslim-owned properties in the country have been widely attacked, especially by Sinhalese Buddhists.
Around 700 refugees mainly from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran were believed to have sought shelter in one Negombo mosque, according to the recent reports. Around 120 were at a police station while several hundred more were at another mosque in Gampaha, 25 kilometers from Negombo.
Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman, told the Associated Press (AP) the agency had received word from refugees that they "have been the targets of threats and intimidation," and that efforts continued to make sure they were safe. Some 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with UNHCR in Sri Lanka, he said.
"UNHCR is working closely with local and national authorities who have been very supportive and helpful to ensure the security and safety of all refugees and asylum seekers during this time of heightened anxiety and concern," Baloch said.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando announced his resignation yesterday, taking responsibility for the suicide bomber attacks on the country last Sunday. He said that while there had been no failure on his own part, he was taking responsibility for failures of some institutions he headed as the secretary of defense. He said that security agencies were actively responding to intelligence they had about the possibility of attacks before they were launched. "We were working on that. All those agencies were working on that," he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted warning to avoid ‘places of worship' this weekend over possible attacks. The country's Catholic church suspended all public services over security fears yesterday, as thousands of troops joined the hunt for suspects in deadly Easter bombings. Authorities made fresh arrests and stepped up security measures as the government faced pressure over its failure to act on Indian intelligence warnings before the suicide bombers blew themselves up in luxury hotels and churches packed with Easter Sunday worshipers.
A senior Catholic priest told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that all public services were being suspended and all churches closed "on the advice of security forces." Private burials will still be carried out. Security forces using state of emergency powers arrested 16 more suspects overnight, bringing the total in custody to 74 since the attacks.