Civilians trapped as violence scorches Myanmar's Rakhine state

Sam Jahan, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 27 2017 01:04 AM

Members of Border Guard Bangladesh stand watch on Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Bangladesh, Saturday. On Saturday up to 2,000 displaced Rohingya women and children gathered at the "zero line" marking the border with Bangladesh but were denied entry, according to authorities. Mohammad Ponir Hossain, Reuters

Terrified civilians tried to flee remote villages in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State for Bangladesh on Saturday afternoon, as clashes which have killed scores continued between suspected Rohingya militants and Myanmar security forces.

Rakhine State has become a crucible of religious hatred focused on the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, who are reviled and perceived as illegal immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Violence has again scorched through the region, leaving at least 92 dead since early Friday and forcing thousands of civilians -- Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine -- to flee their homes.

Unwanted by Myanmar, the Rohingya are unwelcome in Bangladesh, which already hosts tens of thousands of refugees from the Muslim minority.

On Saturday up to 2,000 displaced Rohingya women and children gathered at the "zero line" marking the border with Bangladesh but were denied entry, according to authorities.

In desperate scenes, many were left without shelter in a no-man's land on the border, or forced to return to villages trapping them in between militants and security forces.

"All of them were women and children. Seeing the (border guard) patrol, they did not enter Bangladesh," head of the Bangladesh border guard for Ukhia town, Manzurul Hassan Khan, told AFP.

However, an AFP reporter at the scene said hundreds made it across the porous border early Saturday when border patrols were relaxed due to heavy rains, with some swimming across the Naf river.

An emergency ward doctor also said that two Rohingya men who had been shot in Myanmar entered Bangladesh and were taken to hospital.

"One of them, aged 25, died hours after he was admitted here," the doctor said on condition of anonymity.

- Militancy growing -

The latest violence started on Friday as hundreds of men purportedly from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), ambushed Myanmar police posts using knives, some guns and homemade explosives to kill at least a dozen security forces.

At least 77 Rohingya militants died in the ensuing fight back, according to the office of Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- the highest declared single-day toll since ARSA emerged as a force last year.

The group says it is fighting to protect the Rohingya from abuses by Myanmar security forces and the majority-Buddhist Rakhine community who they accuse of trying to push their roughly 1 million-strong community out.

Attacks on police posts last October sparked a wave of deadly "clearance operations" by Myanmar's army and forced some 87,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

The UN believes that military crackdown may have amounted to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. 

The army denies the allegations which included civilian killings and mass rape.

Rights groups fear a similar crackdown may take place following Friday's brazen attacks.

Bloodshed continued on Saturday with residents fleeing remote villages to the town of Maungdaw, only to be greeted with more violence there.

Three village officials were killed overnight near Maungdaw, according to the office of State Counsellor Suu Kyi.

Hours later residents inside the town, which is close to the Bangladesh border, ran for safety as gun shots rang out as a local administration office came under attack by militants.

"Our situation is urgent," Myint Kyaing, a Maungdaw administrative officer told AFP on Saturday afternoon before hanging up the phone.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists armed themselves with knives and sticks as tension soared in a town that has repeatedly been the epicenter of religious violence since 2012.

With panic spreading, scores of Hindu villagers fled from surrounding villages to Maungdaw after rumours they were also a target for the militants.

"There is no security in the villages," Buthon, a Hindu man in Maungdaw told AFP.

The government has declared the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) a terrorist organization.

Myanmar says the group is headed by Rohingya jihadists who were trained abroad but it is unclear how large the network is and they appear to be using homespun weapons in addition to guns seized during their raids.