At least 71 people, including 12 members of the security forces, have been killed in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state after Rohingya militants attacked border police, ushering in the bloodiest day of fighting since conflict broke out last year.
The fighting exploded around Rathedaung township, where there has been a buildup of Myanmar troops over recent weeks after reports of murders by shadowy groups and an exodus of refugees across the border to Bangladesh.
About 20 police posts across the north of the state came under attack in the early hours of Friday by hundreds of insurgents, some carrying guns and using homemade explosives, Myanmar’s military said.
“The military and police members are fighting back together against extremist Bengali terrorists,” said Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief on the armed forces, in a statement that used the state’s description for Rohingya militants.
The office of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar state counsellor, said 12 security officials and 59 militants had been killed.
“People are hiding, especially old people and women,” Hla Tun, a Rohingya man from a village close to the fighting, told the Guardian.
“The military tried to enter our village at 3.30pm and were shooting us with guns,” he said, adding that four Rohingya were killed.
Tin Maung, a Buddhist villager in Maungdaw township, said he had been hearing gunshots since 2am. “Some military guys are now in our village,” he said on Friday evening, from the police post where he was sheltering.
Fears are growing for hundreds of Rohingya who had been penned into Zay Di Pyin village in Rathedaung township by Buddhist villagers armed with swords and sticks since late July.
Despite years of persecution, the Rohingya have largely eschewed violence. But a previously unknown militant group emerged last October under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claims to be leading an insurgency based in the remote May Yu mountain range bordering Bangladesh.
A Twitter account (@ARSA—Official) which frequently posts purportedly from the group confirmed its fighters were engaging Myanmar’s military in the area and accused the soldiers of carrying out atrocities in recent weeks.
Myanmar says the group is headed by Rohingya jihadists who were trained abroad but it is unclear how large the network is.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an NGO monitoring the Rakhine crisis, said Friday’s violence came after Myanmar soldiers arrested about 80 men in a village in a Rohingya internal displacement camp in Rathedaung and rumours circulated that some had been beaten to death. When they came to take more men on Thursday, they were met with resistance by the villagers.
“Suddenly more soldiers came and started shooting into the IDP camp,” she said. “Two men were killed. I have pictures of the dead bodies.”
That night, a rallying call went out among members of the armed group.
(c) 2017 The Guardian