A Sri Lankan resident rides a bicycle along a road as Special Task Force (STF) soldiers patrol following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Alutgama on June 16, 2014. Sri Lankan police extended a curfew in a popular tourist region after at least 80 people were injured and dozens of Muslim-owned shops and homes torched when a Buddhist mob went on the rampage. Authorities said the curfew would stay in place in the neighbouring resorts of Alutgama and Beruwala as community leaders accused police of doing little to contain the violence. "At least 80 people have been wounded and among them are some police officers too," a police source in the area told AFP by telephone. AFP PHOTO / Ishara S. KODIKARA (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Sri Lankan soldiers of the special task force patrol the streets of Aluthgama, a town in the south of the country, following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in June © AFP

Clashes between Buddhist and Muslim groups in Sri Lanka have claimed the lives of three people and injured almost 80, prompting the government to extend an overnight curfew to damp a resurgence of religious conflict in the south Asian nation.

The clashes underline growing concerns about rising ethnic tensions between Sri Lanka’s largely Buddhist majority Sinhalese and minority Muslims, who make up about a 10th of the island's 20m-strong population.

Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group, a charity, compared the scenes to severe ethnic riots in the early 1980s, which provided a backdrop to the country’s subsequent two decades of civil war.

“This is the most serious anti-Muslim violence in at least two decades,” he said. “It is also almost certainly the worst anti-minority violence since the terrible anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983.”

Sunday’s violence followed a rally addressed by monks from hardline Buddhist groups in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama, prompting police to impose a curfew that was later extended to the nearby area of Beruwala.

Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday appealed for calm and pledged an investigation. “The government will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands. I urge all parties concerned to act [with] restraint,” he said.

Justice minister Rauff Hakeem, a member of Mr Rajapaksa's government and the head of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, confirmed three deaths and at least 78 injuries, according to the BBC.

The deaths are the first Muslim fatalities in ethnic violence since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, and follow a night in which vehicles and buildings were burnt during clashes with police.

The events come at a time of widening worries over relations between Muslim and Buddhist communities elsewhere around Asia, including in Myanmar, whose Muslim minority have suffered recent bouts of sectarian persecution.

Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka have historically focused on troubles between Sinhala Buddhists and the minority Tamils in the island’s north, the two sides in country’s civil war.

But while Sri Lanka's economy has grown strongly since the conflict’s conclusion, the island has also seen rising tensions between Muslims and extremist Buddhists, and in particular an organisation known as the Bodu Bala Sena.

Critics of Mr Rajapaksa claim the President’s family-dominated regime has tolerated the rise of the BBS and other militant Buddhist groups, as a means of cementing their grip on power.

Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said the attacks compounded feelings of persecution among Muslims, amid fears that violence could spread to the capital Colombo, 60km north of the curfew zone.

“The mob attack on Muslim owned shops and homes . . . signifies a significant escalation in anti-Muslim activities that have been taking place over the past two years,” he said.

Mr Rajapaksa’s government has also faced criticism from human rights groups and foreign governments including the US and Britain for failing to investigate allegations of war crimes during the conclusion of the country’s civil war in 2009.

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