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Death toll tops 100 in Myanmar ethnic strife

An injured Rakhine refugee is carried in to Kyauktaw hospital to receive medical treatment Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, in Kyauktaw, Rakhine State, western Myanmar. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

SITTWE, Myanmar: The death toll from recent ethnic violence in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine has surpassed 100, an official said Friday, as the government warned that the strife risks harming the country's reputation as it seeks to install democratic rule.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said 112 people had been killed in clashes that began Sunday between members of the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya communities. He said 72 people were reported injured, including 10 children.

The government announced earlier that almost 2,000 homes had been burned down in the conflict.

The number of dead reported Thursday night had been 56 from four townships, but the increased toll appeared to be a matter of delayed reporting, since it covered six townships and Win Myaing claimed the area was quiet Friday.

In June, ethnic violence in the state left at least 90 people dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. About 75,000 have been living in refugee camps ever since.

The mob violence has seen entire villages torched and has drawn calls worldwide for government intervention.

"As the international community is closely watching Myanmar's democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country," said a statement from the office of President Thein Sein published Friday in the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper.

Thein Sein took office as an elected president last year, and has instituted economic and political liberalization after almost half a century of repressive military rule.

"The army, police, and authorities in cooperation with local people will try to restore peace and stability and will take legal action against any individual or organization that is trying to instigate the unrest," the statement warned.

The long-brewing conflict is rooted in a dispute over the Muslim residents' origin. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated as intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The U.N. estimates their population in Myanmar at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and so - like neighboring Bangladesh - denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.

A statement issued late Thursday by the office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the latest violence as "deeply troubling." He called on Myanmar authorities "to take urgent and effective action to bring under control all cases of lawlessness."

"The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped. If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized," said Ban.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was deeply concerned about the reports and urged restraint.

An Associated Press photographer who traveled to KyaUKtaw, one of the affected townships 45 kilometers (75 miles) north of the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, said he saw 11 wounded people brought by ambulance Thursday to the local 25-bed hospital, most with gunshot wounds.

One was declared dead after arrival. All the victims being treated were Rakhine, but that could reflect an inability or unwillingness of Rohingya victims to be treated there.

A volunteer at the hospital, Min Oo, said by telephone that five bodies, including one of a woman, had also been brought there. He said the injured persons were brought by boat from KyaUKtaw town 16 kilometers (10 miles) away.

Accounts by Rakhine villagers in the area suggested great confusion and tension. The villager said that when groups of Rakhine and the Rohingya had a confrontation, government soldiers shot into a crowd of Rakhine, even though, according to his claim, it had been dispersing. The villager would not give his name for fear of violent reprisals.

"We feel very unsafe because soldiers are not protecting us but protecting the Muslim villages. They shot the Rakhine people when people got near Muslim villages," said Aung Than, a resident of KyaUKtaw township, 74 kilometers (46 miles) north of Sittwe.

There have been concerns in the past that soldiers were failing to protect the Rohingya community, but the Rakhine villager's account hints that Myanmar's military may have been defending the Rohingya in this case.

The crisis has proven a major challenge to Thein Sein's government and to opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized by some outsiders as failing to speak out strongly against what they see as repression of the Rohingya.

 

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