Myanmar and militants trade Rakhine atrocity accusations
Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday accused Rohingya fighters of burning down homes and using child soldiers during a recent surge in violence in troubled Rakhine state, allegations denied by the militants themselves.
The impoverished western state neighbouring Bangladesh has become a crucible of religious hatred focused on the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, who are reviled and perceived as illegal immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Despite years of persecution and government restrictions, the Rohingya largely eschewed violence.
But sporadic armed clashes have erupted since October when a previously unknown Rohingya militant group staged a series of attacks on security forces, sparking a massive crackdown by Myanmar's military which the UN believes may have amounted to ethnic cleansing.
A brutal round of fresh fighting has been raging since Friday when militants staged new coordinated ambushes.
More than 100 people, including some 80 militants, have been confirmed killed. Thousands of Rohingya civilians have fled towards Bangladesh while local Buddhists and Hindus have sought sanctuary in towns and monasteries away from the clashes.
Both sides have accused each other of committing fresh atrocities in recent days, accusations that are difficult to verify because the fighting is taking place in inaccessible villages.
The government department directly run by Suu Kyi -- the State Counsellor's Office -- has released a flurry of statements via Facebook, including grim pictures of civilians allegedly shot dead by militants.
"Terrorists have been fighting security forces by using children at the frontline (and) setting fire (to) minority-ethnic villages," the office said in its latest statement on Monday.
It added that there should be "no concerns for civilians who are not linked with extremist terrorists" and called on Rohingya to not brandish "sticks, swords and weapons" when security forces approached.
- Pope speaks out -
The militant group behind the fighting -- the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) -- hit back with its own allegations on Monday.
"While raiding Rohingya villages, the Burmese brutal military soldiers bring along with them groups of Rakhine (Buddhist) extremists to attack Rohingya villagers, loot Rohingyas' properties and later burn down Rohingya houses," the group said via its Twitter account @ARSA_Official.
Myanmar's assurances for Rohingya civilians appear to have had little effect, with a fresh influx of refugees heading to Bangladesh. Some have been turned back by Bangladeshi authorities.
Rohingya who made it through on Sunday described Buddhist mobs and security forces shooting people dead and burning down homes. They said many Rohingya men and youths stayed behind to fight.
Myanmar's government made similar claims that Rohingya were burning their own homes when violence first broke out in October.
Survivors at the time said Myanmar's military was engaging in scorched earth retribution, as did a number of rights groups who used satellite imagery to track the fires.
Activists and supporters on both sides of the sectarian divide have a history of posting false images and footage online.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner from her years of nonviolent opposition to junta rule, has faced a chorus of international criticism over the continued plight of the Rohingya.
On Sunday Pope Francis spoke out at what he said was "sad news about the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers".
The pontiff has previously condemned Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya, including shortly before meeting Suu Kyi for the first time during a European tour she made earlier this year.
In May the Vatican established diplomatic ties with Myanmar and there has been much press speculation the Pope will visit the country later this year.
Myanmar's Catholic Church is due to hold a press conference in Yangon later today.
© 2017 AFP