COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar are trying to cross the border with Bangladesh, Bangladeshi security officials said yesterday, as fresh fighting erupted in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state.
The death toll from widespread attacks staged by Rohingya insurgents on Friday has climbed to 96, including nearly 80 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces, the government said, prompting it to evacuate staff and villagers from some areas.
The attacks marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since last October, when a similar offensive prompted a major military sweep beset by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in mainly Buddhist Myanmar has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who late on Friday condemned the morning raids – in which insurgents wielding guns, sticks and homemade bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted Muslim minority, and of defending the army’s counteroffensive after the October attacks.
Some 3,000 Rohingya arrived at the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh yesterday, Manzurul Hassan Khan, a Bangladeshi border guard commander, told Reuters.
“About 500 Rohingya, mostly women and children, spent the last night in a marshy area waiting to cross over,” said Khan. “We protected them the whole night. Today they went back.”
Reuters reporters saw hundreds of Rohingya crossing into Bangladesh near the border village of Gumdhum as gun shots could be heard from the Myanmar side. They could be seen squatting in a marshy area, hiding in the bushes from border guards.
“We managed to escape the shooting in Myanmar and tried to enter Bangladesh. We waited all night after we were pushed backed by Bangladesh border guards last night. This morning, we managed to enter somehow,” said Hamid Hossain, 42, who crossed into Bangladesh yesterday with a group of three families.
A 25-year-old man whose relatives said he had been shot by Myanmar security forces on Friday died as he was carried to Bangladesh for treatment. He was buried near a refugee camp close to the border yesterday, according to camp resident Mohammed Shafi, who said he witnessed the burial.
Bangladesh’s foreign ministry yesterday said it was concerned that thousands of “unarmed Myanmar nationals” had assembled near the border to enter the country.
Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh since the early 1990s and there are now around 400,000 in the country, where they are a source of tension between the two nations who both regard them as the other country’s citizens.