UN chief urges restraint after Burma clashes leave hundreds dead
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UN chief Antonio Guterres warned Friday of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in western Myanmar and urged security forces to show restraint after hundreds were reported dead in communal violence and thousands continued to flee.
It is the bloodiest chapter yet in a bitter five-year crisis that has torn apart Rakhine state along ethnic and religious lines, displaced the region's Rohingya community in huge numbers and heaped international condemnation on Myanmar's army and the government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Around 400 people -- most of them Rohingya Muslims -- have died in the violence, according to the army chief's office Friday, while the UN says 38,000 have sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.
A further 20,000 Rohingya have massed along the Bangladeshi frontier, barred from entering the South Asian country, while scores of desperate people have drowned attempting to cross the Naf, a border river, in makeshift boats.
Reports of massacres and the systematic torching of villages by security forces -- as well as by militants -- have further amplified tensions, raising fears that violence in Rakhine is spinning out of control.
"The secretary-general is deeply concerned by the reports of excesses during the security operations conducted by Myanmar's security forces in Rakhine State and urges restraint and calm to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe," said a UN spokesman.
Guterres recalled that it was the government's responsibility to provide security and allow aid agencies to reach those in need.
The army chief's office on Friday gave the updated death toll, sketching out the details of an insurgency that has escalated sharply.
"Until August 30, a large number of terrorists carried out 52 waves of attacks on security forces.... in those attacks, 370 bodies of terrorists were found and nine others captured alive," a statement posted on Facebook said.
Fifteen security forces and 14 civilians have also died in eight days of fighting, it added.
Erdogan says 'genocide'
Rakhine has been the crucible of religious violence since 2012, when riots erupted killing scores of Rohingya and forcing tens of thousands of people -- the majority from the Muslim minority -- into displacement camps.
The latest round of violence erupted last Friday when Rohingya militants swarmed remote police posts, killing 15 officials and burning villages.
Myanmar security forces have launched "clearance" operations to sweep out insurgents whose ranks appear to be swelling as male Rohingya villagers join their cause.
Rights groups, who believe the true death toll is much higher, allege massacres of Rohingya in remote villages led by Myanmar security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs.
The Rohingya are reviled in Myanmar, where the roughly one million-strong community are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Fortify Rights, an NGO with a focus on Myanmar, said eyewitnesses alleged mobs shot and hacked down Rohingya villagers -- including children -- in a five-hour "killing spree" in the village of Chut Pyin in Rathedaung township on Sunday afternoon.
The allegations could not be independently verified by AFP as the area is off-limits to reporters.
Myanmar's Information Committee appeared earlier this week to confirm a major security operation took place around the village on Sunday afternoon as a patrol clashed with scores of Rohingya militants.
But in a complex situation, further muddied by the swirl of claims and denials by both sides, more accounts emerged accusing Myanmar forces of killings and widespread abuse.
A 23-year-old Rohingya woman from Kyet Yoe Pyin said she had witnessed soldiers and Buddhist mobs rape and kill Muslims in her village over the weekend.
"They mercilessly slaughtered men, women and children," she told AFP by telephone from Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh where she has fled. The claims could not be verified by AFP.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday accused Myanmar of "genocide" against the Rohingya in a speech in Istanbul during the Islamic Eid al-Adha feast.
Erdogan said he would bring up the issue at the next UN General Assembly in New York later this month, adding that he had already talked to Guterres and other Muslim leaders.
Bodies in the water
Desperate to reach Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya have taken to boats -- or clung to flotsam -- in an effort to cross the Naf river which separates the two countries. But others died trying.
Eighteen bodies washed ashore in Bangladesh on Friday, according to Bangladeshi border officials, lifting the toll over the last two days to 41.
More than 400 Hindus from Rakhine have also crossed into Bangladesh, after armed men attacked their village, killing and looting.
It is the first time in Rakhine's bitter and bloody crisis that Hindus have fled -- a sign violence is billowing out.
Thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and other local ethnic groups have also been displaced -- the apparent targets of militants who are fighting under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The ARSA emerged as a force in October last year when their attacks killed Myanmar border police, prompting a crackdown by security forces.
The United States on Thursday urged the military to protect civilians, while Yanghee Lee, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the "worsening cycle of violence" was "of grave concern".