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Lanka grills firebrand Buddhist monk Accused of instigating deadly anti-Muslim riots

COLOMBO, July 3, (AFP): Sri Lankan police called in a militant Buddhist monk for questioning Wednesday after he was accused of instigating deadly anti-Muslim riots that heightened religious tensions in the ethnically divided nation. Galagodaatte Gnanasara was summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department over a speech he made two weeks ago in the resort town of Alutgama, where mobs attacked Muslim-owned shops and homes, police said. “Other speakers who were at the same stage with the monk will also be questioned in due course,” police said in a statement, adding that a total of 117 people had been arrested in connection with the religious riots. After five hours of questioning the monk was released, police said in a separate statement.

They did not say whether authorities would press charges against him. “I was questioned about the violence and how it started,” Gnanasara told reporters after being released. He said he denied any hand in the violence. He said the riots broke out after Muslims allegedly attacked a Buddhist monk in the area, a claim already disputed by Muslim leaders.

Four people were killed, 80 wounded and hundreds of shops and homes damaged in the worst religious violence in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka in recent decades. The violence, which started in Alutgama, quickly spread to the adjoining beach resorts of Beruwala and Bentota. Sri Lanka’s media and rights groups have accused the police of failing to take action against Buddhist mobs accused of attacking Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the country’s 20 million population.

The monk’s questioning came after the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella group of 48 Muslim organisations, expressed fears of more violence against their community during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Muslims as well as a majority of moderate Buddhists have pressed for action against Gnanasara’s Buddhist Force, or BBS, which is seen as enjoying the patronage of senior government figures.

The defence ministry called a press conference Wednesday to distance itself from the BBS. The riots have raised concerns of a flare-up in violence as Sri Lanka emerges from a decades-long separatist war waged by ethnic Tamils, which ended in May 2009. The UN estimates that at least 100,000 people were killed in the civil war between 1972 and 2009

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