A top UN envoy arrived in strife-torn western Myanmar on Wednesday as security forces grappled with sectarian violence that has left dozens dead and hundreds of homes burned down.
A state of emergency has been declared in Rakhine state, which has been rocked by a wave of rioting and arson, posing a major test for the reformist government which took power last year.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in many areas.
Vijay Nambiar, UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on Myanmar, flew into the capital of Rakhine to visit Maungdaw, a town near the border with Bangladesh where the violence flared on Friday.
He was accompanied by Myanmar’s Border Affairs minister general Thein Htay and 15 Muslim religious leaders from Yangon.
“We’re here to observe and assess how we can continue to provide support to Rakhine,” Ashok Nigam, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator who was also in the group, told AFP.
An uneasy calm pervaded Sittwe, which has been rattled by gunfire in recent days and was drenched by heavy rains on Wednesday.
Local residents have been seen roaming the streets wielding knives, swords and sticks, while people from both the mainly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities have been forced to flee their homes.
The Buddhists and Rohingya have both accused each other of violent attacks.
The UN has evacuated most of its foreign staff from Maungdaw, which is its main base in the state and has a large population of stateless Rohingya Muslims.
Around 25 people have been killed and a further 41 people were wounded in five days of unrest, an official told AFP on Tuesday. He did not give details of how they died or whether they were Buddhists or Muslims.
Rohingya leaders say the real number of dead is much higher but AFP could not verify the allegation and has been unable to visit many of the affected areas for security reasons.
The toll does not include 10 Muslims who were killed on June 3 by a Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a woman, sparking the violence in Rakhine.
Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist state bordering Bangladesh, is home to a large number of Muslims including the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants and view them with hostility, describing them as “Bengalis”.
Hundreds of Rohingya, many of them women and children, have attempted to flee to Bangladesh in rickety boats in recent days, but have been turned away.
Border guards on Wednesday said they had refused entry to another three vessels, although a single six-week-old baby girl found floating alone in a boat was rescued and placed with a local family.
The Dhaka government has rebuffed international calls, including by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, to let in the fleeing Rohingya.
The United States, which has urged an immediate halt to the sectarian unrest, on Wednesday urged Dhaka to “respect its international obligations under the relevant refugee conventions” and not to turn away Rohingya fleeing the religious violence.
“We are concerned that Bangladeshi authorities appear to have intercepted and turned back persons fleeing the ethnic and religious violence in Burma,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, using Myanmar’s former name.
A leader of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh camps appealed for help from Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing the democracy icon of ignoring the plight of the minority group, who the UN says has suffered decades of discrimination in Myanmar.
“Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t done or said anything for us, yet the Rohingyas including my parents campaigned for her in the 1990 elections,” Mohammad Islam, of Nayapara camp in the border town of Teknaf, told AFP.
A spokesman for the opposition leader’s National League for Democracy party said the former political prisoner had instructed him to work “to help both sides equally” before she left Wednesday on a historic trip to Europe.
The veteran activist, who will formally accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Saturday, has remained largely silent on the unrest apart from calling for “sympathy for minorities”, while key figures in the democratic movement have said the Rohingya are not one of Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities.