By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's government said on Tuesday it would give the go-ahead to plans to develop a mosque in central Colombo, despite objections from Buddhist hardliners who have targeted members of the minority Muslim community in a spate of recent attacks.
Requests to expand the mosque had been repeatedly rejected, Muslim clerics said, because the building work would mean having to cut down parts of a large bo-tree, considered sacred by Buddhists.
A three-storey mosque was built in its place around a month ago, but it was attacked late on Saturday, triggering clashes between Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists and a two-day curfew in the neighborhood in the center of the capital.
There has been increasing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka since last year, mirroring events in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which has also seen a surge of attacks by members of the majority community against Muslims.
In Myanmar, hardline Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of campaigns against Muslims.
In Sri Lanka, a group known as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or the "Buddhist power force", has been trying to win over Buddhists to their own campaign. But the BBS has denied any involvement in the latest mosque attack.
"The Urban Development Authority will hand over the land to the earlier mosque and the bo-tree will also be completely removed to facilitate the construction," M.K.B, Dissanayake, secretary at Ministry of Buddhism and Religious Affairs, said.
"The expansion of the mosque also will be allowed," he told Reuters. "The government will help construct the earlier mosque, if they (Muslims) request help."
At the same time, the government said it would close down the new mosque, although it gave no reason for the decision. Buddhists in the area say that the new mosque was built without proper approval.
As elite police officers armed with guns looked on, local authorities began to cut down the bo-tree to make way for the expansion, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.
Local residents said that police could have prevented the weekend violence if they had acted more decisively. CCTV footage taken from a nearby house, and seen by Reuters, showed people attacking the mosque despite the presence of police.
According to the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, a body representing most Muslim organizations in the country, the incident was the 25th attack on mosques reported to them from across the island nation.
A European Union delegation in Colombo condemned the rise in attacks on Muslims.
"The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of worship are fundamental to democratic societies and should be protected by the state," it said in a statement.
"The European Union looks to the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure justice through speedy, impartial investigations and to enable all Sri Lankans to exercise their human rights freely."
Buddhists make up about 70 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20.3 million. Muslims make up about 9 percent.
(editing by Mike Collett-White)