Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has declared “terrorism” has arrived in her country’s western Rakhine State, as fighting escalates between Islamic militants and security forces, triggering a fresh exodus of refugees to Bangladesh.
“I strongly condemn today’s brutal attacks by terrorists on security forces in Rakhine State,” said Ms Suu Kyi, who has been widely criticised for failing to condemn atrocities by Myanmar’s army in the state that is home to more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims.
At least 89 people, including a dozen security forces, have been killed since about 150 insurgents, some carrying guns and home-made explosives, attacked 30 police posts on Friday.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which also calls itself Harakah al-Yaqin, claimed responsibility for the attacks that have stoked fears Islamic militants have opened up a new battlefront in Asia.
Analysts have long warned the persecution of Rohingya by Myanmar authorities would spawn a potent insurgency that could prompt a new humanitarian crisis and flood of refugees across the region.
Myanmar’s military claims the group is made up of jihadists who were trained overseas.
“The military and police members are fighting back together against extremist Bengali terrorists,” said Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, referring to the state’s description of Rohingya.
The attacks were co-ordinated to coincide with the release of a government-commissioned report by former UN chief Kofi Annan detailing conditions in Rakhine and making recommendations aiming to defuse religious hatred and bloodshed there.
The report urged the scrapping of restrictions of movement and citizenship imposed on Rohingya.
Rohingya are reviled and perceived as illegal immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, but they have lived in the country also called Burma for generations.
Mr Annan said he was “gravely concerned” by the latest attacks.
The United States also condemned them and warned the government against indiscriminate reprisals.
The attacks are much larger than those on several police border posts in October last year that sparked a bloody crackdown that forced almost 90,000 Rohingya to flee to refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.
Investigations by the United Nations subsequently detailed atrocities by security forces it said could amount to crimes against humanity, including the killing of babies and torching of houses with families locked inside.
Aid workers expect thousands of Rohingya families fearful of getting caught up in the latest violence to try to reach Bangladesh in the coming days.
“We are running for our lives,” said one of 700 villagers trapped in Zay Di Pyin village, adding that houses were on fire.
Mohammed Shafi, who lives in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, said his cousin in Myanmar had told him by telephone “the military is everywhere. People are crying, mourning the dead.”
Thousands more troops were airlifted into Rakhine earlier this month.
– with agencies