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Fears for thousands after 'near total destruction' of Myanmar city's Muslim quarter

Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

A girl joins others collecting pieces of metal from the rubble in a neighborhood in Pauktaw township that was burned in recent violence October 27, 2012.

SITTWE, Myanmar - A human rights group expressed concern for the safety of thousands of Muslims on Saturday after revealing satellite images of a once-thriving coastal community reduced to ashes during a week of violence in western Myanmar.

The images released by the New York-based Human Rights Watch show "near total destruction" of a predominantly Rohingya Muslim part of Kyaukpyu, one of several areas in Rakhine state where battles between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists threaten to derail the former Burma's fragile democratic transition.

More than 811 buildings and houseboats were razed in Kyaukpyu on Oct. 24, forcing many Rohingya to flee north by sea toward the state capital Sittwe, Human Rights Watch said.

"Burma's [Myanmar’s] government urgently needs to provide security for the Rohingya in Arakan (Rakhine) State, who are under vicious attack," Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, said.

There were widespread unconfirmed reports of boatloads of Rohingyas trying to cross the sea border to neighboring Bangladesh, which has denied them refugee status since 1992.

No food, no water
Rohingyas in dozens of packed boats with no food or water that have fled Kyaukpyu -- an industrial zone important to China -- and other recent hotspots were seeking access on Friday to overcrowded refugee camps around the state capital Sittwe, according to four Rohingya refugee sources.

Some boats were blocked by security forces from reaching the shore and few Rohingyas managed to reach the camps, the sources said by telephone.

A crew from Britain's Channel 4 News gains access to resettlement camps set-up for around 60,000 members of the Muslim minority group months after deadly clashes with local Buddhists forced them from their homes.

Wan-lark foundation, an organization that has been assisting Rakhine Buddhist refugees, said no clashes in the state had been reported to them since Friday night, but dead bodies of Rakhines had been found.

"Around 6pm last night in Kyawtyaw, the bodies of 16 Rakhines were found in the sea. They had died during the attacks on Thursday. We're looking for more bodies," representative Tun Mein Thein said on Saturday.

The chaos suggests the reformist government is struggling to contain historic ethnic and religious tensions suppressed during nearly a half century of military rule that ended last year.

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A Rakhine government spokesman put the death toll at 112 as of Friday. But within hours state media revised it to 67 killed from Oct. 21 to 25, with 95 wounded and nearly 3,000 houses destroyed.

The death toll could be far higher, said Human Rights Watch, citing "allegations from witnesses fleeing scenes of carnage and the government's well-documented history of underestimating figures that might lead to criticism of the state."

The clashes come just five months after communal unrest killed more than 80 people and displaced at least 75,000 in the same region.

Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Hla Hla Myint, who suffered a gunshot wound to the head in recent violence, rests in a bed at a hospital in Kyuktaw township, Myanmar, Thursday.

'Ethnic cleansing'
A boat carrying 120 Muslims from Kyaukpyu was intercepted by Rakhines, who killed the men and raped the women, the advocacy group Burmese Rohingya Organisation U.K. claimed in a statement. This report could not be verified, Reuters said.

"Ethnic cleansing is happening under the noses of the international community and they are doing nothing," said Tun Khin, the group's president. "We have confirmed reports that hundreds of people have been killed and the government must be aware of that."

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Kyaukpyu is crucial to China's most strategic investment in Myanmar: Twin pipelines that will carry oil and natural gas through the town on the Bay of Bengal to China's energy-hungry western provinces.

The United Nations has warned that Myanmar's fledgling democracy could be "irreparably damaged" by the violence.

Rohingyas are officially stateless. Buddhist-majority Myanmar's government regards the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and not as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups, and denies them citizenship.

But many of those expelled from Kyaukpyu are not Rohingya but Muslims from the officially recognized Kaman minority, said Chris Lewa, director of the Rohingya advocacy group, Arakan Project. "It's not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it's anti-Muslim," she said.

It was unclear what set off the latest arson and killing that started on Sunday. In June, tension flared after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that was blamed on Muslims, but there was no obvious spark this time.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International have called on Myanmar to amend or repeal a 1982 citizenship law to end the Rohingyas' stateless condition.

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