DHAKA/SITTWE, Myanmar (REUTERS) - Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing a military crackdown in western Myanmar to Bangladesh, trying to escape an upsurge of violence that has brought the total number of dead confirmed by the army to more than 130.
Some of the Rohingya were gunned down as they tried to cross the Naaf river that separates Myanmar and Bangladesh, while others were pushed away by Bangladeshi border guards and may be stranded at sea, Bangladeshi authorities and residents said.
The bloodshed is the most serious since hundreds were killed in communal clashes in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine in 2012.
It has exposed the lack of oversight of the military by the seven-month-old administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Soldiers have poured into the area along Myanmar's frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on Oct 9 that killed nine police officers.
They have locked down the district, where the vast majority of residents are Rohingya, shutting out aid workers and independent observers, and conducted sweeps of villages, the authorities, diplomats and aid workers have said.
The army has intensified its operation in the last seven days and has used choppers to reinforce, with dozens reported killed.
Aid workers, camp residents and authorities in Bangladesh estimated at least 500 Rohingya had fled Myanmar to Bangladesh since the October attacks. The refugees are now staying in four Rohingya camps on the Bangladeshi side of the border, they say.
But on Tuesday, Bangladeshi border guards pushed back a large group of Rohingya trying to cross. "Early Tuesday 86 Rohingya including 40 women and 25 children were pushed back by the BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh) from the Teknaf border point," said Lt. Col. Anwarul Azim, commanding officer of the Cox's Bazar sector in eastern Bangladesh.
"All of them tried to enter Bangladesh and came by two engine-operated boats. Now we have beefed up our patrolling and additional forces have been engaged to ensure security in the border area," he said.
Reuters sources said the Rohingya group was unlikely to have gone back to the villages in Myanmar out fear of violence and might be still stranded at sea.
The stateless Rohingya are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Col Htain Lin, Border Affairs Minister of the Rakhine state government, refused to comment on the situation. Police Major Kyaw Mya Win, from the Maungdaw police, said the people were trying to escape because they tried to attack the military.
"The villagers have become insurgents, including women in the village," said Kyaw Mya Win.
Up to 69 members of what Myanmar's government has described as a Rohingya militant group and 17 members of the security forces have been killed in the upsurge of violence in the last seven days, the Myanmar military said on Tuesday.
This has brought the tally of killed suspected Rohingya Muslim attackers to 102 since Oct. 9, while the security forces'toll stands at 32, according to state media releases.
MANY DEAD BODIES
Four Rohingya from northern Rakhine contacted by Reuters by telephone on Wednesday confirmed that hundreds were trying to escape and cross the river to Bangladesh. They said some were gunned down.
"The residents told me nearly 72 people were killed near the river bank, that the military shot into the crowd on the river bank," said a Rohingya community leader who declined to be identified.
Another man from Maungdaw said women and children from around 10 villages were trying to flee to Bangladesh and some were killed as they were trying to get into the boats.
"A lot of dead bodies were floating in the sea," said the man. He added that these people were not travelling together, but that they had separated into groups of 20 or 50 to get on to the boats.
Residents and rights advocates have accused security forces of summary executions, rape and setting fire to homes in the recent violence.
Diplomats have also appealed for an independent and credible investigation, but the government has not announced any plans to carry it out. The government and army reject the accusations, blaming the "violent attackers" for razing houses.
The suspected Rohingya militants have identified themselves as the previously unknown Al-Yakin Mujahidin in videos posted online. In a fresh clip, a man who has appeared in previous videos stands in front of several men prostrated on the ground with wounds on their back and bloodied legs.
"We are Rohingya and we want to restore our usurped rights,"the man shouts to the camera. "We deserve our rights and we are not terrorists."
Authorities have denied independent journalists access to the area, so Reuters has been unable to independently verify either the military accounts or the accounts of the residents.