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About 1,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing escalating violence in Burma had been halted at the border with Bangladesh, Bangladeshi security officials said on Saturday, as fresh fighting erupted in Burma’s northwestern Arakan State.
The death toll from attacks staged by Rohingya insurgents on Friday has climbed to 89, including 77 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces, Burma’s army said.
The attacks marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since a similar offensive last October that prompted a big military sweep beset by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
At least one fresh attack had taken place on Saturday, according to a Burmese security source.
National leader Aung San Suu Kyi condemned Friday’s early morning raids — in which Rohingya insurgents wielding guns, sticks and home-made bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base — while the government evacuated staff and villagers to safety.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya has emerged as the biggest challenge for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s 16-month old administration.
Suu Kyi has been accused of not speaking out for the persecuted minority and of defending the army’s brutal counter-offensive after the October attacks.
In a sign that both sides were bracing for more violence, about 1,000 Rohingya arrived at the Naf River separating Burma and Bangladesh and got stranded there, a Bangladeshi border guard and Mohammad Ali Hossain, deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar district near the Burma border, told Reuters.
“Many Rohingya people are trying to enter the country, but we have a zero tolerance policy — no one will be allowed,” said Hossain.
Bangladeshi officials regularly advocate a hardline approach to refugees in official interviews, but typically end up letting the refugees through. There are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and 87,000 have arrived since October.
The Burma Army operation last year was heavily criticised internationally amid reports of civilian killings, rape and arson, sparking allegations by the United Nations of crimes against humanity. Suu Kyi is blocking a UN-mandated probe into the allegations.
Observers worry that the latest attacks will spark an even more aggressive army response and trigger communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhist ethnic Arakanese.
“25 Aug attack in N Rakine [Arakan] utmost concern! Violence must stop in Rakhine. Heartfelt sorrow 4 deaths. Beg all sides 2 take restraint! Everyone!” said Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, on Twitter.
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 non-Rohingya 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 Arakan State told Reuters.
Military sources and residents told Reuters the fiercest fighting took place only a few kilometres east and south of the centre of the major town of Maungdaw in the hamlets of Myo Thu Gyi and Nyaung Chaung.
A resident in Maungdaw contacted by Reuters by telephone said he heard what sounded like shelling in the direction of Myo Thu Gyi.
“A lot of police and army vehicles went to the area as the fighting erupted between the security forces and Muslim groups,” said the source.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which instigated the October attacks, claimed responsibility for the offensive, presenting it as a defence against the Burma army.
Burma declared ARSA, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, a terrorist organisation in the wake of the attacks. President Htin Kyaw’s office and Burma Army chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing also “discussed the issues of applying more security forces and using helicopters,” the government said.
Kori Mullah, a Rohingya resident from Maungdaw, said his family did not dare to go out of the house and the town was tense and quiet.
“The roads are empty. Schools, shops and markets are all closed down. People don’t go out,” he said.
Arakanese Buddhist villagers from Taman Thar village, some 50 km (30 miles) north of Maungdaw, said they spent Friday night at a monastery with 500 non-Muslim residents of the area.
“The military patrol arrived near our village, so there were no clashes at night,” Maung Thein Hla, one of the fleeing residents, told Reuters by telephone.
“We felt better about our security because the army was near us.”