COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) - Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar are trying to cross the border with Bangladesh, Bangladeshi security officials said on Saturday, as fresh fighting erupted in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state.
The death toll from widespread attacks staged by Rohingya insurgents on Friday has climbed to 96, including nearly 80 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces, the government said, prompting it to evacuate staff and villagers from some areas.
The attacks marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since last October, when a similar offensive prompted a major military sweep beset 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, who late on Friday condemned the morning raids - in which insurgents wielding guns, sticks and homemade bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted Muslim minority, and of defending the army’s counteroffensive after the October attacks.
Some 3,000 Rohingya arrived at the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh on Saturday, Manzurul Hassan Khan, a Bangladeshi border guard commander, told Reuters.
“About 500 Rohingya, mostly women and children, spent the last night in a marshy area waiting to cross over,” said Khan. “We protected them the whole night. Today they went back.”
Reuters reporters saw hundreds of Rohingya crossing into Bangladesh near the border village of Gumdhum as gun shots could be heard from the Myanmar side. They could be seen squatting in a marshy area, hiding in the bushes from border guards.
“We managed to escape the shooting in Myanmar and tried to enter Bangladesh. We waited all night after we were pushed backed by Bangladesh border guards last night. This morning, we managed to enter somehow,” said Hamid Hossain, 42, who crossed into Bangladesh on Saturday with a group of three families.
A 25-year-old man whose relatives said he had been shot by Myanmar security forces on Friday died as he was carried to Bangladesh for treatment. He was buried near a refugee camp close to the border on Saturday, according to camp resident Mohammed Shafi, who said he witnessed the burial.
Bangladesh’s foreign ministry on Saturday said it was concerned that thousands of “unarmed Myanmar nationals” had assembled near the border to enter the country.
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.
In Myanmar, the government said there had been several large clashes involving hundreds of Rohingya across northwestern Rakhine on Saturday. The fiercest fighting took place on the outskirts of the major town of Maungdaw, near the Alodaw Pyae Buddhist monastery.
Maungdaw resident Nay Myo Lin, 27, told Reuters by telephone that security forces opened fire on scores of what appeared to be Muslim men with guns near the monastery.
“Police shot at them to break up the group and then the men shot back in the direction of the entrance gate of the city,” said Nay Myo Lin. “As the fighting went on throughout the day, I was stuck in the monastery and didn’t dare to go out. When the sound of gunshots stopped, I ran to my house,” he said.
Fearful Rakhine Buddhist residents in Maungdaw town gathered in homes while men stood guard by the windows, said Ohmar Lin, a female resident of the town.
“We don’t go out of the house, but I am ready to fight - we are prepared with knives and sticks to protect ourselves if they come here,” she said.
The United Nations security team has sent an internal update to staff about the clashes, seen by Reuters, saying that Myanmar government officials had assured the U.N. “about their readiness to provide troops to secure our compounds if it becomes necessary”.
The government said in a statement that: “Extremist Bengali terrorists are attacking using man-made mines ... swords, sticks, guns. They also killed Islamic religious people of their own faith who were village administrators.”
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 Myanmar army operation last year was heavily criticised internationally amid reports of civilian killings, rape and arson that a United Nations investigation said probably constituted crimes against humanity. Suu Kyi is blocking the U.N.-mandated probe into the allegations.
Aid workers and monitors worry that the latest attacks, across a wider area than October’s violence, will spark an even more aggressive army response and trigger communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhist ethnic Rakhines.
Nearly 200 people were killed and around 140,000 displaced in communal violence in the state in 2012.
In a statement late on Friday, Suu Kyi “strongly condemned” “brutal attacks by terrorists on security forces in Rakhine State”.
“I would like to commend the members of the police and security forces who have acted with great courage in the face of many challenges,” she added.
The government said it had evacuated officials, teachers and hundreds of villagers to army bases and main police stations.
“Some will be evacuated by helicopters and some will be taken out by the security forces,” a military source based in Rakhine told Reuters.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which instigated the October attacks claimed responsibility for the offensive, presenting it as a defence against the Myanmar army.
Myanmar declared ARSA, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, a terrorist organisation in the wake of the attacks.
Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in YANGON, Krishna N. Das in NEW DELHI and Rafiqur Rahman in COX’S BAZAR; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson