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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Curfew after Sri Lanka unrest
Sri Lankan soldier
The clashes come at a time of hope for peace
Troops are enforcing a strict curfew in eastern Sri Lanka after violence between Muslims and Tamils left seven people dead and 50 wounded, officials say.

Police fired tear gas and called in the army on Thursday to quell unrest in Valaichchenai near Batticaloa, which has seen the worst of the tit-for-tat clashes, including two grenade attacks.

Rallies and other gatherings have now been banned throughout surrounding Kalkudah district, about 220 kilometres (135 miles) east of the capital, Colombo.

Reports said authorities had also imposed a 24-hour curfew on Batticaloa and Ampara districts to the south in an attempt to stop the fighting.

Muslims were, however, allowed to attend Friday prayers, officials said, but thousands of people have already fled their homes because of the violence.

Protest

The unrest began in Muthur near Trincomalee a week ago after Muslims called a general strike in protest at alleged extortion by separatist Tamil Tiger rebels and attacks by Tamils.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe
The prime minister's efforts are threatened

Violence then spread south to Valaichchenai, where as well as the grenade attacks, there were a number of smaller incidents on Thursday.

The latest victims were one person killed in a grenade attack and another who succumbed to wounds sustained in earlier violence between the two communities.

Defence officials in Colombo have confirmed reports by a Sri Lankan ceasefire monitor and local troops that the Tigers fired one shell at Valaichchenai on Thursday.

Officials believe the move was meant as a warning to local Muslims, but they do not think it was sanctioned by the rebel leadership in the north of the country.


All government and private institutes including shops remained closed and public transport came to a standstill

Sri Lanka army statement
However, local doctors and civil servants contacted in the area say they did not hear any shell.

BBC Colombo correspondent Frances Harrison says the government is determined to control the growing communal tension before it spreads.

Officials met the prime minister late into the night and decided to airlift 150 troops in to the affected areas from elsewhere in the country to support the police.

Local media say they have been asked to play down the situation to give the authorities time to cool tensions.

Roots of unrest

Observers have put forward several theories to explain the outbreak of violence.

Some argue that Muslims - Sri Lanka's third largest community - feel excluded from the current peace process between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Muslims funeral for victim of earlier clash
Communal violence is entrenched
Others say they are fed up with extortion and harassment allegedly at the hands of the rebels.

Some of the media have suggested extremist Islamist groups with international links are involved, but Muslim politicians deny such groups even exist in Sri Lanka.

But there are also fears being expressed about whether those who oppose the peace process in Sri Lanka might be helping to incite the trouble - though there is no proof that the frustrations being expressed are not local ones.

About 80% of Sri Lanka's 19 million population are Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhists.

Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, make up about 12.5%, and Muslims about 7.5%.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

27 Jun 02 | South Asia
13 Apr 02 | South Asia
07 Dec 01 | South Asia
16 May 01 | South Asia
07 May 01 | South Asia
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