Myanmar’s government denied that security forces and a Buddhist mob attacked a village in an isolated corner of the country this week and killed Muslim women and children.
A rights group said more than a dozen people may have died and that hundreds of people have fled their homes. The US and Britain called on the government to investigate and to hold those responsible accountable.
“We have had no information about killings,” Burmese Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said to reporters on Friday on the sidelines of a meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Myanmar’s ancient city of Bagan.
His comments were echoed by other government officials.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been grappling with sectarian violence for nearly two years. More than 240 people have been killed and another 250,000 forced to flee their homes, most of them Muslims from the western state of Rakhine.
The northern tip of the state, where Tuesday’s violence occurred, is home to 80 percent of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Foreign journalists cannot travel to the area and the work of humanitarian aid organizations is restricted.
Chris Lewa, director of the Thailand-based advocacy group Arakan Project, which has been documenting abuses against Rohingya for more than a decade, said details about the violence in Du Char Yar Tan village were still emerging, with many conflicting reports.
The death toll could be anywhere from 10 to 60, Lewa said, whose sources range from a village administrator to witnesses. One witness described the slashed-up bodies of three acquaintances — two women and a 14-year-old boy — found in their homes. Some of the victims also were hit by bullets, the group said they had been told.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, which runs a nearby clinic, said it was concerned that residents who are in hiding may not be getting the medical care they need.
“MSF confirms that on Wednesday it saw two wounded people suffering from injuries inflicted as a result of violence — one from a gunshot wound and the other exhibiting injuries consistent with a beating,” the group’s Myanmar head Peter-Paul de Groote said.
Tensions have been building in northern Rakhine since last month, when monks from a Buddhist extremist movement known as 969 arrived and started giving sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya.
One resident said by phone that the flare-up in Du Char Yar Tan village began following allegations by police that residents had abducted and possibly killed one of their officers, triggering a security crackdown.
Soldiers and police surrounded Du Char Yar Tan, breaking down doors and looting livestock and other valuables, said the man, who works as a volunteer English teacher. Worried they would be arrested, all the men fled, leaving the women, children and elderly behind, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
That some of the victims appeared to have been stabbed with knives, not shot or beaten, “would clearly indicate the massacre was committed by [Buddhist] Rakhine villagers, rather than the police or army,” the Arakan Project wrote in a briefing on Thursday.
The US and Britain put out a joint statement on Friday condemning the violence.