YANGON (Reuters) - Suspected insurgents killed at least six members of a Buddhist ethnic minority in western Myanmar on Thursday, the government and regional sources said, amid spiraling violence in troubled Rakhine state.
Security forces discovered the bodies of three men and three women bearing machete and gunshot wounds in the Mayu mountain range near the town of Maungdaw, the office of Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said.
In a statement, it said "extremists" were responsible for killing the six members of the Mro minority from the village of Kaigyi who residents believe stumbled upon a camp for Rohingya Muslim militants.
Two groups with monitors in northern Rakhine said local sources believed Rohingya militants were not active in the area, and that the killings could be linked to rampant methamphetamine trafficking.
Reuters was unable to verify the contradictory claims.
Muslim-majority Northern Rakhine was plunged into violence last October when Rohingya insurgents killed nine police in coordinated attacks on border guard posts.
In the ensuing military operation, security forces allegedly shot villagers at random, raped Rohingya women and burned down houses. United Nations investigators who interviewed some of the nearly 75,000 people who fled to neighboring Bangladesh said troops probably committed crimes against humanity.
Suu Kyi is refusing to cooperate with a U.N. fact-finding mission set up to look into abuses in Rakhine and elsewhere.
The government accuses the militants of running training camps in the mountains and killing alleged informants in the Muslim community.
Security forces had begun an "intensive clearance operation" to hunt the killers, a military officer in Rakhine said.
Two women aged 21 and 34 were still missing from the group that ventured into the hills to tend to farms, said the officer, who sought anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Aung Kyaw Min, a Buddhist resident of Kaigyi, said villagers believed the two women had also been killed because some of their bloody clothing was recovered.
"We are all suffering from this killing," he said. "All the villagers are in panic and nobody wants to live there. They all want to move to a safe place arranged by the government."
Non-Muslim ethic groups recognized as Myanmar citizens are the minority in northern Rakhine. About 1.1 million Rohingya live in the state, but are denied citizenship. Many in Myanmar consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Tension among the communities has been running high in recent weeks, say aid workers and U.N. officials there.
In Rathedaung, south of Maungdaw, an estimated 600 Muslim villagers confronted security forces who were trying to arrest six alleged militant financiers on Friday, a separate statement from Suu Kyi's office said.
Government forces fired warning shots when they were attacked with sling shots, sticks and knives in Auk Nan Yar village, it said.
A resident and a monitoring group, however, said troops fired into the crowd, wounding at least four villagers.
Reporting by Wa Lone and Simon Lewis; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie