Colombo (AFP) - Sri Lankan police have arrested a key figure from an extremist Buddhist organisation blamed for a series of hate crimes against Muslims that has drawn international censure.
The 32-year-old man from the radical Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Force, is the first suspect to be arrested in connection with arson attacks against Muslims that have stoked religious tensions.
Police spokesman Priyantha Jayakody said investigations were continuing into 16 "major incidents" of arson since April that hit Muslim homes, businesses, mosques and a cemetery.
"We are taking a tough stand against such crimes," he told reporters.
The man in custody was directly linked to at least four arson attacks in a Colombo suburb, police said. The unidentified individual had been remanded in custody pending further investigations.
Police were criticised for failing to bring the radical Buddhist group to heel by capturing its fugitive ringleader Galagodaatte Gnanasara, as the minority Muslim community endured attacks with stones and petrol bombs.
Jayakody said the detained suspect is a close associate of Gnanasara, an extremist monk who has gone underground since late May when police ordered he turn himself in for questioning. Four specialist teams were hunting the BBS mastermind, he added.
In a video message released Sunday, a BBS spokesman denied the group was behind the anti-Muslim attacks but accused the government of allowing Islamic extremism to flourish in the Buddhist-majority nation.
"Within a decade or two, Buddhism will be under serious threat in Sri Lanka," spokesman Dilanthe Withanage said.
"If we want to resort to extremists, violence or terrorism, we have the power and the strength to do it. But we will never resort to such things."
Withanage did not discus the whereabouts of Gnanasara, who went into hiding after alleging there was a threat to his life.
The BBS was accused of instigating religious riots in mid-2014 that left four people dead, but it escaped prosecution under the then-strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.
Rajapakse's brother Gotabhaya, a former defence secretary, was said to be close to the group.
The latest failure to arrest Gnanasara and stop a renewed outbreak of religious violence has seen the European Union and foreign envoys urge Sri Lanka to take action.
The European Union delegation chief in Colombo, Tung-Lai Margue, has said it was crucial there was "no impunity for hate crimes" and that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice.