YANGON (Reuters) - At least six people were wounded in gunfire as Myanmar soldiers hunted ethnic Rakhine insurgents in the western town of Mrauk U, residents said on Tuesday, while the military said a convoy was ambushed entering the historic temple town.
Soldiers moved into the town on Monday night, marking an intensification of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where security forces have waged a campaign against a militant group called the Arakan Army.
While Rakhine State gained global attention after the army drove about 700,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh in late 2017, the ethnic Rakhine are largely Buddhist like the majority of Myanmar’s people.
The military said in a statement there was “shooting back-and-forth” as insurgents attacked a military convoy approaching Mrauk U before retreating into houses.
Myo Oo Khaung Sayataw, a monk, said he had taken six people to hospital and that a seven-year-old girl with burn wounds was among the casualties.
“I went out to the wounded people, because no one dared to go out,” he said. “I saw six military cars, they were shooting everywhere.”
Mrauk U, the former capital of an ancient kingdom, is popular with foreign travelers visiting its hundreds of centuries-old pagodas, which Myanmar wants classified as a World Heritage Site.
Two British tourists said they heard gunfire and explosions on Sunday.
Christopher Caddy, 32, who lives in Manchester, posted a video on Twitter showed him and his fiancee wandering through a temple.
“If you’re wondering what that noise is outside that’s just the Myanmar army just firing rifles and exploding stuff,” Caddy said.
“We were in the temple for maybe five minutes when we first heard all the shots and explosions,” he told Reuters. “A few minutes later, when I noticed that the gunfire was still continuing I started filming.”
Residents of Mrauk U said the clashes had made them frightened to leave home.
“I don’t dare go out, because of the gunfire,” said Shwe Tun Aung. “I closed my door and am still in the house until now. The situation is not good, civilians are in trouble.”
Military spokesmen did not answer calls from Reuters seeking comment, but a statement posted on Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s website portrayed the fighting as an ambush.
“AA terrorists attacked a military convoy while the convoy was marching into Mrauk U town for security,” the statement said. “AA terrorists took cover in civilian houses.”
A spokesman for the insurgents did not answer phone calls.
Myanmar’s leaders have vowed to crush the rebels, who are fighting for autonomy for Rakhine, and the violence has intensified since early January, when the Arakan Army launched attacks on police that killed 13.
Clashes have spread since, displacing several thousand people, and authorities have declared large parts of the north of the state off-limits to most aid agencies.
The United Nations head in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, said he was “deeply concerned” by the reports of fighting and urged all sides to ensure the protection of civilians.
“The United Nations is in contact with the Myanmar authorities and stands ready to continue with the humanitarian support to the affected civilian populations,” Ostby said in a statement.
The sentencing on Tuesday of two prominent Rakhine nationalists to 20 years in prison for high treason raised fears that unrest could spiral further out of control.
Dr Aye Maung, a politician, and writer Wai Hin Aung, were found guilty by a court in Sittwe, the state capital.
The pair were arrested in January, 2018 over comments made during an event in Mrauk U marking the anniversary of the fall of the independent Rakhine kingdom to the Burmese in 1785, when they allegedly spoke favorably of the Arakan Army.
The ceremony ended in violence, with police shooting dead seven demonstrators and wounding 12.
The long sentence handed to the two men could further escalate conflict, said Sithu Aung Myint, a political analyst.
“The result will make Rakhine people more frustrated,” he said. “It will likely create further instability in the region.”
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Ed Osmond
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