KYAUKTAW, Myanmar – At least 56 people have been killed and 1,900 homes destroyed in renewed ethnic violence in western Myanmar as the government warned perpetrators and the international community appealed for calm.
About 75,000 people remain in refugee camps since an outbreak of violence in June between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in which at least 90 people were killed and more than 3,000 homes were destroyed. Curfews in place in some areas since then have been expanded with the latest violence, but tensions have stayed high in part because the government has failed to find any long-term solution other than segregating the communities, which have long been in conflict.
Since Sunday, 25 men and 31 women were reported dead in four Rakhine state townships, local government spokesman Win Myaing said. Some 1,900 homes had been burned down in the fresh conflict, while 60 men and four women were injured. It was unclear how many of the victims were Rohingya people and how many were Rakhine.
The United States called for Myanmar authorities to take immediate action to halt the violence. The United Nations appealed for calm.
Myanmar's state daily Myanma Ahlin reported Friday the President's office has warned it will take action against instigators involving in the clashes.
"As the international community is closely watching Myanmar's democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country," said the announcement.
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 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, and taken from the jetty by the ambulances.
An account by a Rakhine villager 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.
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.
"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. "Soldiers did not shoot in the air, but they shot at the Rakhine people."
The United Nations called for calm and for it to be given access to the area for humanitarian purposes.
"The U.N. is gravely concerned about reports of a resurgence of inter-communal conflict in several areas in Rakhine State — which has resulted in deaths and has forced thousands of people, including women and children, to flee their homes," U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Ashok Nigam said in a statement.
Large numbers of people fleeing the new violence were headed for already overcrowded refugee camps, the U.N. official said, advocating short-term humanitarian support and action toward long-term solutions.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was deeply concerned about the reports and urged restraint.
The unrest broke out days after the U.S. held what it described as an encouraging human rights dialogue with Myanmar — the latest sign of diplomatic re-engagement with the former pariah state that has made significant democratic reforms.
The conflict in western Myanmar 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.
The crisis has proven a major challenge to President 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.
Buddhist monks have been spearheading anti-Rohingya protests, and on Thursday staged their latest one in Yangon, the country's biggest and most important city. More than 100 staged a peaceful protest at the historic Sule Pagoda.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.