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Rohingya villages erased by Myanmar army 'scorched-earth' purge: Amnesty

© AFP/File / by Sally MAIRS | Smoke rises from what is believed to be a burning village in the area near Maungdaw in Myanmar's Rakhine state

BANGKOK (AFP) - 

Amnesty International on Friday released fresh satellite images of burnt villages in Rakhine state, alleging Myanmar's security forces have led "systematic" clearances of Rohingya Muslim settlements over the last three weeks.

At least 26 villages had been hit by arson attacks in the Rohingya majority region, the rights group said, with patches of grey ash picked up in photos marking the spot where homes had once stood.

Backing up the pictures, Amnesty said fire sensors also deployed on satellites had detected 80 large-scale blazes across northern Rakhine state since August 25, when the army launched "clearance operations" in response to attacks by Rohingya militants.

"Rakhine state is on fire," said Olof Blomqvist, a researcher with Amnesty International, in a "clear campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar security forces".

The group quoted Rohingya witnesses who described security officers and vigilantes using petrol or shoulder-fired rocket launchers to set homes alight, before firing on villagers as they fled.

In some ethnically mixed communities, such as the village tract of Inn Dinn, images showed that only Rohingya homes had been burned, the report said.

"It's very difficult to conclude that it is anything other than a deliberate effort by the Myanmar military to drive Rohingya out of their own country by any means necessary," Blomqvist added.

Myanmar denies targeting Rohingya, instead insisting the militants have set the fires.

The Myanmar government says nearly 40 percent of Rohingya villages are now empty in the northernmost part of Rakhine, but argues not all have run from army operations, insisting some were either linked to the "extremist terrorists" or scared of them.

But scores of Rohingya refugees have detailed raids by soldiers who fired on civilians before razing entire communities -- often with the help of ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs.

The accounts from Amnesty matched a flood of testimony collected by AFP in refugee camps along the Bangladesh border.

"There is a clear and systematic pattern of abuse here. Security forces surround a village, shoot people fleeing in panic and then torch houses to the ground," said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty's crisis response director.

"The government's attempts to shift the blame to the Rohingya population are blatant lies," she added.

Some 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus have also been displaced by the unrest.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long been criticised for its repression of the Rohingya, with the recent unrest branded ethnic cleansing by the international community.

by Sally MAIRS

© 2017 AFP