YANGON/COX'S BAZAR (Bangladesh) • The Myanmar government said it has evacuated at least 4,000 non-Muslim villagers amid ongoing clashes in north-western Rakhine state as thousands more Rohingya Muslims sought to flee across the border to Bangladesh yesterday.
The death toll from the violence that erupted last Friday with coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents has climbed to 98, including some 80 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces, the government said.
Observers worry that the latest attacks represent a "breaking point" many Rohingya have reached with the help of charismatic insurgent leader Ata Ullah. He leads the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) which instigated an attack last October and claimed responsibility for the latest offensive.
Myanmar has declared Arsa, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, a terrorist organisation in the wake of the attacks.
Bracing themselves for more violence, thousands of Rohingya - mostly women and children - were trying to cross the Naf River separating Myanmar and Bangladesh and the land border. Reuters reporters at the border could hear gunfire from the Myanmar side yesterday, which triggered a rush of Rohingya towards the no man's land between the countries.
About 2,000 people have been able to cross into Bangladesh since Friday, according to estimates by Rohingya refugees living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
At least 70 Rohingya migrants have been sent back to Myanmar, local police chief Abul Khaer told AFP.
The latest violence marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since last October when a similar but much smaller Rohingya attack prompted a brutal military operation dogged by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
While the chaos and lack of access made detailed assessments difficult, experts said the latest attacks were so widespread, they appeared to be more akin to a movement or an uprising, rather than an insurgent offensive.
One army source said the military was also struggling to differentiate. "All the villagers become insurgents, what they're doing is like a revolution," said the source in Rakhine. "They don't care if they die or not. We can't tell who among them are insurgents."
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in mainly Buddhist Myanmar has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms Suu Kyi has condemned the raids in which insurgents wielding guns, sticks and homemade bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted Muslim minority.
Myanmar's minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement Win Myat Aye told Reuters late on Saturday that 4,000 "ethnic villagers" who had fled their villages had been evacuated, referring to non-Muslim residents of the area.
"We are providing food to the people cooperating with the state government and the local authorities," said the minister. He was unable to describe the government's plans to help Rohingya civilians.
People from the main towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in Rakhine state said they were worried food supply routes had been temporarily cut off.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE