A group of five-six motorbike-borne persons damaged the outer wall of an old shrine in Ayodhya on Friday night and murdered a 22-year-old student sleeping in a mosque, 500 metres away.

While the cause is not clear, locals believe that these were part of an attempt to trigger communal tensions. The shrine, which houses a grave popularly believed to be that of Prophet Shis, is visited by both Hindus and Muslims. Sited just 2 km from the disputed site, it was attacked when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992.

“Since then, it is the first time a religious place of the minority community has been attacked,” says Anil Singh, a Faizabad college professor. “They could have damaged the shrine and left, or murdered him first. But maybe, he saw them committing the act, so they killed him.”

Government officials rushed to the spot and did repairs to the shrine.

A police officer told The Hindu that there were indications that the crime was committed in such a way as to give it a communal colour. “The miscreants have made attempts to hide their motive,” he said. The police did not believe that the murder was due to a personal grudge.

Mahant Yugal Kishor Saran Shastri, head priest of the Saryu Kunj temple, also believes that the act was intended to stir communal trouble. “Why did they damage the shrine and then commit the murder 500 metres away?”

The youth, Mohammed Danish, hailed from Bihar and was a undergraduate student of a college at Ayodhya. He lived on the premises of the Pir Paigambhar shrine at the Jinnati Mosque. The body was sent for post mortem.

The police have detained some persons for interrogation.

The district administration has deployed security forces near the mosque and invoked Section 144 of the Cr.PC to prevent any unlawful assembly.

Security has also been tightened at Faizabad, which witnessed communal clashes during the Durga Puja procession last year.