International pressure mounted for an end to religious violence in western Myanmar, where armed police yesterday patrolled a flashpoint region devastated by rioting and arson.
The US urged an immediate halt to the deadly sectarian unrest, which has prompted the UN to evacuate foreign workers from Rakhine State, now under a state of emergency.
Small-arms fire echoed yesterday around the state capital Sittwe, according to a reporter, while plumes of smoke rose above the coastal city, as Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist villagers fled their homes.
At least seven people have died since Friday, according to officials, in a cycle of apparent revenge attacks between the two sides that presents a major test of fragile political reforms since army rule ended last year.
Rights organizations fear the real toll could be much higher with advocacy group the Arakan Project, which works with the Rohingya, saying dozens of people had been killed.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday called for “all parties to exercise restraint,” adding the “the United States continues to be deeply concerned” about the situation.
The UN has begun pulling out more than 40 workers — including foreigners — and their families from a base in Maungdaw, an area home to large numbers of Rohingya where clashes have also been reported.
Warning that the violence is running “out of control,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for international observers to be deployed in Rakhine.
“Why is the international community pulling out at this time? Is the threat at a level that warrants it?” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division
“The government of Burma has thrown a black veil over the situation in Rakhine State,” he said.
Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist state bordering Bangladesh, is home to a large number of Muslims, including the Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The Burmese government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants and view them with hostility, describing them as “Bengalis.”
Rioting has seen hundreds of homes torched across the state.
Buddhist women and children from outlying villages have taken refuge in monasteries inside Sittwe, according to a reporter in the city, while a Rohingya village was torched yesterday morning, forcing residents to leave for safety under an escort from security forces.
An ethnic Rakhine firefighter said some Rohingya villagers had been injured as they escaped burning homes.
“We don’t know who set the fires. We all have sympathy for them [the Rohingya]. We saw women and children running for their lives. We are all humans,” he added, but asked not to be named.
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi patrol teams intercepted three boats of Rohingya trying to enter Bangladesh on Monday night over the Naf River, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) Major Shafiqur Rahman said.
“The three boats were carrying 103 Rohingya, including 81 women and children,” he said.
The boats were detained and later returned to Burmese territory, he said, adding the BGB had turned away a total of 11 boats carrying more than 400 Rohingya since Monday.
“On these boats are women and children, and injured people,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative Craig Sanders said in Dhaka. “We are appealing to the Bangladesh government to keep open its border and provide emergency and other humanitarian assistance.”