COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Around 400 people – most of them Rohingya Muslims – have died in communal violence searing through Myanmar's Rakhine state, the army chief's office said Friday, with tens of thousands forced to flee across the border into Bangladesh.
A further 20,000 Rohingya have massed along the Bangladeshi frontier, while scores of desperate people have drowned attempting to cross the Naf, a border river, in makeshift boats.
Reports of massacres and the systematic torching of villages by security forces – as well as by militants – have further amplified tensions, raising fears that communal violence in Rakhine is spinning out of control.
"Until August 30, a large number of terrorists carried out 52 waves of attacks on security forces .... in those attacks, 370 bodies of terrorists were found and nine others captured alive," a statement posted on the Facebook page of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing's office said Friday, September 1.
Fifteen security forces and 14 civilians have also died in 8 days of fighting, it added.
It was unclear if the deaths of 78 militants killed last Friday in raids on police posts that sparked the current round of violence had been included in the toll.
Either way, it is the bloodiest chapter yet in a bitter 5-year crisis that has torn apart Rakhine state along ethnic and religious lines, displaced the Rohingya in huge numbers, and heaped international condemnation on Myanmar's army and the government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Rights groups say the true toll is likely much higher.
They allege massacres of Rohingya led by Myanmar security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs.
Fortify Rights, an NGO with a focus on Myanmar, said eyewitnesses alleged mobs shot and hacked down Rohingya villagers -- including children -- in a five-hour "killing spree" in the village of Chut Pyin in Rathedaung township on Sunday afternoon.
The allegations could not be independently verified by AFP as the area is off-limits to reporters.
Myanmar's Information Committee appeared earlier this week to confirm a major security operation took place around the village on Sunday afternoon as a patrol clashed with scores of Rohingya militants.
But it is hard to pin down exact details amid the claims and counter-claims of abuses and violence by the opposing sides.
Bodies in the water
Desperate to reach Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya have taken to makeshift boats in an effort to cross the Naf river which separates the two countries.
The UN says at least 27,000 have made it across.
But others died trying to flee burning villages.
Eighteen bodies washed ashore in Bangladesh on Friday, a border official said, lifting the toll over the last two days to 41.
Mainuddin Khan, police chief of the border town of Teknaf, said the bodies appeared to have been in the water for some time and included that of a young girl.
More than 400 Hindus from Rakhine have also crossed into Bangladesh, a community leader there told AFP, after armed men attacked their village, killing and looting.
It is the first time in Rakhine's bitter and bloody crisis that Hindus have fled the country – a sign violence is billowing out.
Thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and other local ethnic groups have also been displaced – the apparent targets of militants who are fighting under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The latest round of violence erupted last Friday when Rohingya militants swarmed remote police posts, killing 15 state officials and burning villages.
Myanmar security forces have launched "clearance" operations to sweep out insurgents whose ranks appear to be swelling as male Rohingya villagers join their cause.
An Agence France-Presse reporter on a government-led trip to Maungdaw this week saw columns of smoke rising from several burning villages, while terrified Buddhist and Hindu civilians huddled in schools in the main town.
The United States on Thursday urged Myanmar's military to protect civilians, while Yanghee Lee, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, expressed fears that "grave violations" could take place.
"The worsening cycle of violence is of grave concern and must be broken urgently," she added.
Rakhine state has been the crucible of religious violence since 2012, when riots erupted killing scores of Rohingya and forcing tens of thousands of people -- the majority from the Muslim minority -- into displacement camps.
The ARSA emerged as a force in October last year when their attacks killed Myanmar border police, prompting a crackdown by security forces that killed scores and forced 87,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are reviled in Mynamar, where the roughly one million-strong community are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh already hosts 400,000 Rohingya and does not want more. – Rappler.com