YANGON Four people were killed when hundreds of Rohingya Muslims rioted in a Buddhist community in Myanmar on Friday, a government official said, as communal tensions boil over in troubled Rakhine state.
A curfew was imposed in the state's Muangdaw township after Rohingyas, who are mostly stateless Muslims of South Asian descent and subjected to tight restrictions by the authorities, went on the rampage following Friday prayers at a mosque.
They hurled rocks and torched houses and buildings, witnesses told Reuters by telephone.
Hmu Zaw, a senior official in President Thein Sein's office, said on his Facebook page four Buddhists, among them a doctor and an elderly man, had died of multiple knife wounds. A Muangdaw hospital official said one was killed and four wounded.
The escalating unrest in Rakhine state, in the west, presents a major challenge to Thein Sein's reformist government, which replaced a military junta last year and says it wants to forge national unity among all ethnicities and religions in Myanmar, one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries.
However, unless it spirals out of control, it is unlikely to deter Western governments who are keen push reforms and improve ties with the country long isolated by international sanctions.
A Rohingya politician and an activist, citing local sources, said the riots erupted after security forces had opened fire on Rohingyas and several of them were killed.
The accounts provided by sources contacted by Reuters could not be immediately verified.
State MRTV made no mention of the unrest in its nighttime news bulletin but reported a curfew had been imposed in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in Rakhine state. Both are dominated by Rohingyas.
The riots came five days after 10 Muslims, who were not Rohingyas, were killed by Buddhist vigilantes who intercepted the bus they were travelling on in Rakhine's Taunggoke town, an incident that angered Muslims and led to a rare protest in Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon.
The attack followed the distribution of leaflets in Rakhine calling for retribution for the gang rape and killing of a young Buddhist woman several days earlier.
Resentment of Rohingyas runs deep among Myanmar's predominantly Buddhist, ethnic Burman majority. The government and many Burmese refuse to recognize them as "Rohingyas" - how they are known outside Myanmar - instead referring to them as "Bengalis".
MRTV reported three men had gone on trial for the rape and murder of the woman on Friday, referring to them as Bengalis.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates members of the minority group number some 800,000 in three districts of Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.
Most Rohingyas are stateless, recognized by neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh, and thousands flee each year on small boats, to work illegally in Thailand and Malaysia.
Abu Tahay, chairman of the National Democratic Party for Development, a Rohingya political party, said Buddhists hurled stones at the mosque in Muangdaw and five Rohingyas were shot dead after an argument with security forces. The details could not be independently confirmed.
He said nearby Buthidaung was braced for trouble. "The situation is now very critical and unstable," he said by phone from Yangon. "Violence hasn't started yet, but it might soon."
What has triggered the unrest in Rakhine state remains a mystery and prior to Friday's riots, some prominent Burmese, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had suggested the violence could have been instigated intentionally, but have not said why, or by whom.
The government on Thursday announced it had appointed a minister and police chief to head an investigation into the "organized lawless and anarchic acts" in Rakhine state.
It took the unusual step of announcing the probe on the front pages of official newspapers on Thursday and quickly removed from news websites references to Muslims as "kalar", a derogatory term for Muslims of South Asian descent in Myanmar.
Prominent Muslims distanced themselves from Friday's unrest.
"We're talking, to work together with the authorities and our national brethren to control the situation," said Soe Myint, a Muslim elder in Yangon, referring to the escalating tensions.
"We're worried that what these Bengalis are doing will make our brethren misunderstand us."
In fiery comments, prominent activist and former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi blamed the conflict on Rohingyas and said the violence was not being fuelled by religion.
"Rohingyas are not a Myanmar ethnic race," he told reporters. "It has become a national concern infringing on our sovereignty."
(Writing by Martin Petty in Bangkok; Editing by Alison Williams)