Bangladesh sent in troops to guard Buddhist neighbourhoods on Monday after Muslim mobs carried out fresh attacks on temples and homes over Facebook photos deemed offensive to Islam.
At least six temples were attacked in different neighbourhoods of the resort region of Cox’s Bazaar late Sunday, with thousands of protesters smashing statues of Lord Buddha before riot police used force to repel the crowds.
The violence began Saturday night in the southeast of the country and has since spread to at least five towns and a dozen villages, after claims that a young Buddhist man had posted Facebook photos defaming the Koran.
“This was an organized attack. We won’t spare anyone who is found to have played a role,” said Faruk Ahmed, deputy police chief for the southeastern region, adding that nearly 200 people had been arrested.
Twenty-five workers from the country’s largest shipbuilder Western Marine were among those detained in the port city of Chittagong and the company closed its shipyard on Monday.
A senior army officer, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said around 1,000 troops had been deployed in Cox’s Bazaar and 300 in the nearby village of Ramu, where a mob of 25,000 people ran riot on Saturday night.
“We have secured the temples and Buddhist areas. Our teams have set up tents for the people whose houses were burnt,” he told AFP. “We have adequate forces. Things are getting back to normal.”
Buddhists, who make up less than one percent of Bangladesh’s mostly Muslim population of 153 million, are based mainly in southeastern districts, close to the border with Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Sectarian tensions have been running high since June when deadly clashes erupted between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
The 30-year-old man at the centre of the accusations has gone into hiding after telling local media he did not post the picture on the social media site, insisting someone else had “tagged” him in images on Facebook.
Local police chief Najibul Islam told AFP that one photo on the now-blocked account showed a woman standing on an open Koran, while another showed a page of the holy book being flushed down the toilet.
The man’s mother and an aunt were given police protection after the violence broke out, officials said.
Bangladesh’s Interior Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir visited Ramu on Sunday, assuring the Buddhist community the attacks would be thoroughly investigated and they would receive compensation to rebuild their temples and homes.
He said the attacks appeared to be “premeditated and a deliberate act of communal violence”.
A team of investigators, comprising government bureaucrats and police officials, began work on Monday.
Sunil Barua, a journalist who lives in a Buddhist neighbourhood in Ramu, said two of the temples attacked over the weekend were 300 years old.
“They looted Buddha statues from the temples, and shops owned by Buddhists were also looted,” he told AFP by phone. “The villages look like as if they were hit by a major cyclone.”
Although Bangladesh has witnessed violent conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in the past, sectarian clashes involving Buddhists are rare.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Muslims have hit the streets across the country to protest against a U.S.-made anti-Islam film mocking the Prophet Mohammed.