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MANDALAY, Myanmar: Thousands of people, some wielding sticks, flooded Myanmar's second-largest city Friday as tensions spiked during the funeral of a victim of sectarian clashes that have raised fears of spreading violence.
A procession led by scores of motorcycles carried the coffin of the 36-year-old Buddhist man through the heart of Mandalay, as anger grew following unrest in which a Muslim man was also killed.
The violence on Tuesday and Wednesday saw mobs wielding air guns, swords, rocks and other weapons go on a rampage through the central metropolis.
It was the latest in a string of deadly religious clashes that have plagued the nation for two years, prompting warnings that the country's fragile transition to democracy could be imperilled.
Authorities imposed an overnight curfew on Thursday to quell the riots, which left 14 people injured. Police arrested nine people in connection with the unrest.
An AFP reporter at the scene said there was a relatively light security presence in central Mandalay despite the large crowds.
The wife of the victim, who was attacked on Wednesday evening, told AFP that she could not understand why the father of her three children was targeted.
"They killed him brutally," she said as she prepared for the funeral.
A friend of the dead man, who was with him at the time of the attack, showed AFP injuries on his hand that he said were slash marks from a "sword" used by a group to kill his friend.
"I will hold a grudge for the rest of my life. If anything happens like this again I will not hesitate to be involved," said Htwe.
A funeral for the dead Muslim man, a popular local bicycle shop owner, was held Thursday, hours after he was killed while on his way to attend early morning prayers.
Mandalay has not suffered communal unrest on this scale before.
Police sources told AFP they were boosting security measures as a precaution in other cities, including the commercial hub Yangon which has a diverse population of religious and ethnic minorities.
Unrest broke out on Tuesday after an accusation of a rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men from a local tea shop was spread on the Internet, prompting a crowd of hundreds to gather near the business, hurling stones and damaging property.
"The violence happened because of hate speech and misinformation spread online," an official from the president's office, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
People in the community expressed concerns that such attacks may happen again.
Aung Win Tun, a Muslim in Myanmar, said: "The government must educate the people… The people have to accept multi-culturalism, the people have to respect others.
“Because with social media, people can access social media easily. There are a lot rumours in social media, people cannot think properly whether it is true or not.”
Social media users were unable to access Facebook for the second straight evening, amid speculation that Myanmar had blocked the site to curb the spread of inflammatory comment online.
No one from the authorities was able to comment on the issue and the official spokesman, who posts his official updates via Facebook, did not respond to requests for information.
So far the police have arrested about 10 people involved in the attacks.
The state authorities are still not sure as to when they will consider lifting the curfew.
Zaw Min Oo, deputy police chief of Mandalay region, said: "The previous attacks are criminal acts. Don't view this as a strictly religious issue. The situation has now calmed down. We will get the two communities to have a dialogue and we will create more awareness.”
Sectarian clashes have left at least 250 people dead and tens of thousands displaced since fighting first broke out in Myanmar's western Rakhine state in 2012.
Most of the victims have been Muslim and clashes have often erupted as a result of rumours or individual criminal acts.
Radical monks have been accused of stoking religious tensions, while the security forces have been accused of failing to prevent attacks.
Prominent hardline cleric Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay, posted a link to online allegations against the tea shop owners on his Facebook page just hours before the latest unrest flared up.
He has since ramped up the tension with allegations that the city's mosques have called for "jihad", with hundreds of people poised to launch an attack.
But in an interview with AFP he dismissed suggestions that his online posts were inflammatory.
"Muslim organisations are the ones responsible for this and are more able to stop it from happening again," he said, accusing the community of shielding the two men from the tea shop.
Kari Hasan, the head of downtown Shaeshaung mosque, said the Muslim community had become a target of hate speech and had been let down by the authorities.
"If something happens they suddenly say it is because of Islam. With the new government we expected good things but we only get bad things," he said.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi blamed the authorities for the worsening violence and warned of the dangers of unsubstantiated reports.
"The authorities should properly handle those people who are spreading rumours. Without rule of law, more riots will come," she told Radio Free Asia, according to remarks posted on the broadcaster's website. - AFP/CNA/xq