CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH // Thousands of rioters set fire to Buddhist temples and homes in south-eastern Bangladesh yesterday over a photograph deemed offensive to Islam that was posted on Facebook, in a rare attack against the community.
Officials said the mob, comprising about 25,000 people, set fire to at least five Buddhist temples and dozens of homes in Ramu town and its adjoining villages, 350 kilometres from the capital, Dhaka.
The rioters claimed the photograph allegedly defaming the Quran was uploaded on Facebook by a young Buddhist man from the area, said Joinul Bari, a district administrator.
"They became unruly and attacked Buddhist houses, torching and damaging their temples from midnight to Sunday morning," he said. "At least 100 houses were damaged. We called in army and border guards to quell the violence."
He added that authorities had temporarily banned public gatherings in the area to prevent further clashes.
The man who allegedly uploaded the picture has gone into hiding and told local media he did not post the picture, insisting someone else had "tagged" his account with the image on the social network.
His mother and an aunt were given police protection for their safety after the violence broke out, officials said.
Police officer Rumia Khatun said about "25,000 Muslims chanting 'God is great'" first attacked a Buddhist hamlet in Ramu, burning centuries-old temples, and later stormed Buddhist villages outside the town. It wasn't clear if there were casualties, and authorities did not say if any of the rioters were arrested.
Witnesses described rioters leaving a trail of devastation at the Buddhist villages.
"I have seen 11 wooden temples, two of them 300 years old, torched by the mob. They looted precious items and Buddha statues from the temples. Shops owned by Buddhists were also looted," said Sunil Barua, a local journalist at the scene.
The country's home minister, industries minister and national police chief rushed to the scene yesterday morning.
The riots later spread to Patia, home to a sizeable Buddhist population, outside the south-eastern port city of Chittagong, where mobs attacked and vandalised three temples, said Aminur Rashid, a local police chief.
"They damaged statues and looted valuable items. We brought the situation under control," he said, adding that security had been tightened in all Buddhist villages and temples in the area.
Buddhists, who make up less than 1 per cent of Bangladesh's 153 million population, are based mainly in south-eastern 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 Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
Although Bangladesh, where nearly 90 per cent of people are Muslims, has witnessed deadly clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the past, sectarian clashes involving Buddhists are rare.
In recent weeks tens of thousands of Muslims have taken to the streets across the country to protest against an anti-Islam film mocking the Prophet Mohammed.