At least three Muslims were killed and 75 people seriously injured in violence between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Sri Lankan coastal towns best known as tourist draws, with Muslim homes set ablaze, officials and residents said on Monday.
There has been increasing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka since 2012, mirroring events in Myanmar, which has seen a surge of attacks by members of the majority Buddhist community against Muslims.
Clashes erupted in Aluthgama and Beruwela, two Muslim-majority towns on the Sinhalese-dominated southern coast, on Sunday during a protest march led by the hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or "Buddhist power force".
"I just can't understand a government which prevents even a trade union or student protesters going to protest marches ... allowing the BBS to conduct the meeting," Rauf Hakeem, justice minister and the leader of the country's largest Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, told Reuters.
He said Muslims in the area had repeatedly requested authorities to provide them with security.
Many independent analysts say recent, well-coordinated violence against Muslims and Christians appears to have tacit state backing as those involved in previous attacks have yet to be punished. The government denies any collusion.
The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam attacked Muslim villages in the northeast during the 1983-2009 civil war.
More than 140 people were killed in a massacre of Muslims in 1990 blamed on the Tigers, which the group denied.
A Reuters team in Aluthgama and Beruwela witnessed an uneasy calm and a heavy police presence, with Muslims worried for their safety, many of them sitting on the road in front of their gutted houses.
"The curfew is only for Muslims, not for the rioters," Fathima Fazniya, a 65-year-old retired teacher, told Reuters.
"They (the rioters) came in ... lorries behind the police and looted all our houses. Then they torched my house. They are well organised."
Reuters witnessed 16 houses gutted by fire. A police vehicle through loudspeakers on the road urged people to stay inside their homes, announcing: "A curfew is
imposed for your own safety. Do not come out of your houses."
Many residents said the police directly and indirectly helped the extreme organisation BBS. Police rejected the claim.
The BBS has said its members came under attack when they were protesting peacefully against an assault on a Buddhist monk by a Muslim youth three days ago.