COLOMBO • The Sri Lankan authorities yesterday arrested a police officer and a Buddhist monk accused of leading an arson attack against a mosque and a Muslim business amid a wave of religious violence.
Deputy Inspector-General Priyantha Jayakody said the policeman, a monk and two others were caught on camera torching the buildings in Panadura, just outside the capital Colombo.
"They were taken after analysing CCTV footage, which showed them setting fire to a mosque and a Muslim-owned bookshop at Panadura last month," Mr Jayakody said.
The arrested policeman, a constable stationed at Colombo, was accused of stoking racial and religious tensions, Mr Jayakody said, describing the arrests as a "breakthrough" in efforts to curb the outbreak of violence.
Police say the four accused are close associates of Galagodaatte Gnanasara, a Buddhist extremist who heads a group of radicals blamed for a slew of arson attacks against Muslim businesses, cemeteries and mosques.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Gnanasara, who went underground last month after police linked dozens of alleged hate crimes against Muslims to his radical Buddhist Force, or BBS.
Police have warned that anyone harbouring or aiding the fugitive monk in any way will face prosecution. Gnanasara maintains close ties with Wirathu, an extremist monk in Mandalay whose hate speech has galvanised religious tensions in Myanmar.
Wirathu visited Sri Lanka as a guest of Gnanasara in September 2014, shortly after anti- Muslim riots at the tourist resort of Aluthgama left four people dead and hundreds of Muslim homes destroyed.
The arrest warrant issued for Gnanasara dates back to April 2014, months before the outbreak of violence, when he was accused of insulting the Quran. The government has vowed to protect Muslims in the Buddhist-majority nation and prevent the violence from escalating.
Earlier this month, foreign diplomats urged Sri Lanka to take action to stop the violence from escalating. In a video message released last week, the BBS denied any involvement in the attacks but accused the government of allowing Islamic extremism to flourish in Sri Lanka.