COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Myanmar’s government said it had evacuated at least 4,000 non-Muslim villagers amid ongoing clashes in northwestern Rakhine state, as thousands more Rohingya Muslims sought to flee across the border to Bangladesh on Sunday.
The death toll from the violence that erupted on Friday with coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents has climbed to 104, the vast majority militants, plus 12 members of security forces and several civilians, according to a Reuters tally based on official releases.
The government said it was investigating whether members of international aid groups had been involved in an alleged siege by the insurgents of a village in Rakhine.
The United Nations had pulled out non-essential staff from the area, said a spokesman, while Pope Francis expressed his solidarity with the Muslim minority in his weekly address in Rome.
Bracing for more violence, thousands of Rohingya - mostly women and children - attempted to forge the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh and the land border. Reuters reporters at the border heard gunfire from the Myanmar side, which triggered a rush of Rohingya towards the no man’s land between the countries.
“Please save us,” 61-year-old Amir Hossain told Reuters near the Bangladeshi village of Gumdhum. “We want to stay here or else we’ll get killed.”
Around 2,000 people have been able to cross into Bangladesh since Friday, according to estimates by Rohingya refugees living in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since last October, when a similar but much smaller Rohingya attack prompted a brutal military operation dogged by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in mainly Buddhist Myanmar has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has condemned the raids in which insurgents wielding guns, sticks and homemade bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, told Reuters late on Saturday that 4,000 “ethnic villagers” who had fled their villages had been evacuated, referring to non-Muslim residents of the area.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, reported several clashes involving hundreds of Rohingya insurgents across northern Rakhine state on Sunday.
“The Tatmadaw column going to Nanthataung Village for operation also confronted about 800 Bengali terrorists at 9 am today. They are still fighting there,” the army said in a statement.
The term “Bengali” is seen as derogatory by many Rohingya as it implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many can trace family in Myanmar for generations.
The government said it was investigating whether international non-government organisation staff were involved when militants surrounded and blockaded a village in August.
A local reporter in the town of Buthidaung told Reuters he had seen nearly 100 staff of international aid agencies leave the town in speedboats following that statement.
The government also re-posted photographs of energy biscuits with the logo of the World Food Programme (WFP) on it which it said had been found at a “terrorist camp” in August.
The WFP said it took “any allegation of food diversions very seriously,” adding it had requested details on the biscuits from the authorities, but had not heard back.
“In light of the situation on the ground, the U.N. in Myanmar has decided to temporarily relocate non-critical staff out of Maungdaw,” the U.N. said referring to another major town in northern Rakhine, without giving more detail.
In a statement that risked complicating his visit to Myanmar planned for later this year, Pope Francis expressed his solidarity with the Rohingya.
“We all ask our Lord to come to their rescue and to prompt men of good will to come to their aid so they have full rights. Let us also pray for our Rohingya brothers,” he said.
The Rohingya have for years endured apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar - they are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on their movements. Many Myanmar Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government called on Rohingya civilians to cooperate with the security forces and said those not related to the insurgents would not be affected.
It has declared the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which instigated the October attacks and claimed responsibility for the latest offensive, a terrorist organisation in the wake of the attacks.
On Sunday, it also indicated it may take action against media calling the group “insurgents” and not “terrorists” as per the government’s designation.
At the no man’s land near Gumdhum, dozens of Rohingya women, most wearing burqa, sat cramped under a few black plastic sheets shielding them from the harsh sun.
A number of Rohingya men ran to the unoccupied area between the two countries after several gun shots rang out on the Myanmar side.
Bangladesh border guard officials said they were providing food and water to the Rohingya, but that no one would be let in.
Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh since the early 1990s and there are now around 400,000 in the country, where they are a source of tension between the two nations who both regard them as the other country’s citizens.
Additional reporting by Krishna N. Das, Stephen Jewkes and Reuters staff; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Mark Potter