COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar urged Muslims in the troubled northwest to cooperate in the search for insurgents, whose coordinated attacks on security posts and an army crackdown have led to one of the deadliest bouts of violence to engulf the Rohingya community in decades.
The treatment of Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing leader Aung San Suu Kyi, accused by Western critics of not speaking out for the minority that has long complained of persecution.
Aid agencies estimate that about 73,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh from Myanmar since violence erupted last week, Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters on Sunday.
Hundreds more refugees on Sunday walked through rice paddies from the Naf river separating the two countries into Bangladesh, straining scarce resources of aid groups and local communities already helping tens of thousands.
The clashes and military counter-offensive have killed nearly 400 people during the past week.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that violence against Muslims amounted to genocide.
It marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since October, when a smaller Rohingya attack on security posts prompted a military response dogged by allegations of rights abuses.
“Islamic villagers in northern Maungtaw have been urged over loudspeakers to cooperate when security forces search for Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) extremist terrorists, and not to pose a threat or brandish weapons when security forces enter their villages,” a report in state-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar said on Sunday.
ARSA has been declared a terrorist organisation by the government. The group claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on security posts last week.
In Maungni village in northern Rakhine, villagers this week caught two ARSA members and handed them over to the authorities, the newspaper added.
The army wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that Rohingya insurgents had set fire to monasteries, images of Buddha as well as schools and houses in northern Rakhine.
More than 200 buildings, including houses and shops, were destroyed across several villages, the army said.
While Myanmar officials blamed the ARSA for the burning of homes, Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh and human rights watchers say that a campaign of arson and killings by the army is aimed at trying to force out the minority group.
On a Twitter account believed to be linked to the ARSA, the group accused the Myanmar army of “causing terror and destruction to the ethnic Rohingya population”.
About a hundred protesters gathered in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Sunday, calling for the authorities to step up security measures in northern Rakhine to protect ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
“I want the government to protect the people (from insurgents) without any hesitation,” said Zin Lin Aung, a university student.
More than 11,700 “ethnic residents” had been evacuated from northern Rakhine, the government has said, referring to non-Muslims.
In Bangladesh, authorities said that at least 53 bodies of Rohingya had either been found floating in the Naf river or washed up on the beach in the past week as tens of thousands continue to try to flee the violence.
A senior leader of al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has called for attacks on Myanmar authorities in support of the Rohingya.
Amid mounting anger over the violence against Rohingya in Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, a petrol bomb was thrown at the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta on Sunday, causing a small fire.
Separately, hundreds protested in Jakarta, calling on the Indonesian government to take an active role in bringing a halt to human rights violations against the Rohingya.
Former colonial ruler Britain said on Saturday that it hoped Suu Kyi would use her “remarkable qualities” to end the violence.
Reporting By Simon Lewis and Nurul Islam in COX'S BAZAR, Shoon Naing and Win Myint in YANGON; Writing by Yimou Lee; Editing by Nick Macfie, Himani Sarkar and David Goodman