India's supreme court has awarded Hindus a controversial religious site – a rival Muslim claim denied.

The ruling threatens to exacerbate tensions between the two communities involved in a bitter dispute over the country – with fatal riots.

The unanimous decision paves the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the northern city of Ayodhya, a move long backed by the ruling Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The security in Ayodhya was tightened
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Before the verdict, security was tightened in Ayodhya and throughout India

It will be a political victory for Mr Modi, who has won a second term in a landslide electoral victory this year.

The dispute over ownership was one of the country's most contentious issues.

The Hindus believe the three-acre property – about the size of a soccer field – was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

They claim that the site was sacred to Hindus long before the Muslim Mughals, India's best-known Islamic rulers, established the so-called Babri Mosque there in 1528.

The mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992, sparking religious unrest that killed around 2,000 people nationwide, most of them Muslims.

It also led to a series of court battles in which various groups claimed the site.

The Indian Supreme Court has ordered that an alternative piece of land be made available to a Muslim group claiming the contested site.

The country has been heavily protected since the religious clashes of 1992.

Prior to the ruling, security was tightened in Ayodhya and throughout India, especially in cities where communal violence had previously taken place.

In some regions, assembly restrictions have been imposed and the police have been monitoring social media to stem rumors that could cause tension in the community.

In some cities, Internet services were also ceased, while schools and colleges were closed until Monday.

In a series of tweets, Mr. Modi said last night, "Whatever the Supreme Court will decide on Ayodhya, it will not be a win or a loss for anyone.

"I appeal to compatriots that it should be the priority of all of us that this decision further strengthens India's great tradition of peace, unity and good will."

Hindu devotees and activists celebrated the verdict on the courts' courtyards, making bugles and singing "Jai Shree Ram," or blessing the god Ram.

A lawyer representing the Muslims regretted the verdict.

"We are not satisfied with the verdict and it does not meet our expectations," said Zafaryab Jilani, who represents the Muslim community group.

He hinted that he would file a petition for review with the Supreme Court against Saturday's ruling. At the same time, he appealed to members of all communities to uphold the peace.

Vishnu Shankar Jain, a lawyer representing the Hindu community, said it was a fight.

"It was a huge legal dispute and we are glad that we have convinced the Supreme Court, it is a historic moment for Hindus," he said.

Raj Nath Singh, the Indian Minister of Defense, called on people to "accept the court verdict and maintain peace".

In Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi criticized the ruling, saying that it signals the "hate-based thinking" of Mr. Modi's government.

"This is nothing more than that the Modi government is continuing its policy of cultivating seeds of hatred and promoting differences between communities and religious communities in order to achieve their goals," he said.