By Wa Lone and Antoni Slodkowski
NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – Troops in Myanmar’s northeastern Rakhine state were put on high alert on Tuesday, police and sources said, after nearly 200 Rakhine Buddhist villagers fled the area after a recent spate of killings and amid fears of fresh attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
Rakhine Chief Minister Nyi Pu and senior state government officials have “urgently” gone to the area after receiving reports of fleeing villagers, officials said, and border guards in neighboring Bangladesh have also been put on alert.
Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar border guard posts in October, provoking a military crackdown in which hundreds were killed, more than 1,000 houses burned down and some 75,000 Rohingya Muslims forced to flee to Bangladesh.
The United Nations has established a fact-finding mission to investigate crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the military during the counter-offensive. The administration of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected the allegations and opposes the mission.
Fighting in Rakhine has been sporadic since the end of November, but tensions have risen over the past several weeks when village administrators were murdered and troops killed three people while clearing a Rohingya militant camp last week.
Myanmar’s state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said on Tuesday a villager in northern Rakhine was “speared” while praying at the weekend, following a separate attack on a village head by a group of “at least 10 masked assailants” who stabbed the village leader to death on June 17.
“The killings took place over the weekend and the situation is getting increasingly worse. A group of people wearing black masks has killed local administrators close to the government, so the residents are panicking. That’s why we are on high alert,” Rakhine state police chief, Sein Lwin, told Reuters.
Sein Lwin and a military source operating in the area said security forces expected fresh Rohingya militant attacks on troops after Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which ended in Myanmar on Monday.
It was not immediately clear how many people have been killed in recent violence, nor who was behind it, because the military sealed off the area in October, cutting off access to information.
Kyaw Win, a Rakhine ethnic villager, said nearly 200 villagers from 11 Rakhine ethnic villages had fled to the cities of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe.
“We don’t dare to live here, there are a lot of rumors spreading among the people that we will be attacked by Muslims,” Kyaw Win told Reuters by telephone.
Rohingya refugees in makeshift settlements in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar have also organized self-defense patrols to guard against masked men roaming the camps at night in recent weeks, Reuters sources in the camps have said.
Bangladesh forces near the Myanmar border were also put on high alert after reports of violence at the weekend, said Lieutenant Colonel SM Ariful Islam.
(Additional reporting by Nurul Islam in Cox’s Bazar; Editing by Paul Tait)