SITTWE • Myanmar's army chief has blamed Rohingya militants for an explosion outside a mosque in western Rakhine state, as a rights group accused the military of starting fires in the region to prevent refugees from returning.
Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing posted a statement on Facebook yesterday, saying that Rohingya militants had planted a "homemade mine" that exploded in between a mosque and a madrasah in Rakhine's Buthidaung township on Friday.
The army chief accused the militants of trying to drive out around 700 residents who had remained in the village of Mi Chaung Zay - an argument that analysts have said makes little sense for a group whose power depends on the networks it has built across Rohingya communities.
"As our villagers did not want to leave their homes, the terrorists blew up the bomb during prayer time as a way of terrorising the villagers," the army chief's statement said.
"It is the act of Arsa terrorist group," it added, using an acronym for the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army whose raids on police posts last month triggered the military backlash.
No one was reported to have been injured in the explosion.
The unrest comes just days after Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi stressed that the Myanmar government was taking effective measures to curb the violence in Rakhine and to also ensure that innocent civilians are not harmed.
With the government blocking access to the conflict zone, it is difficult to verify the swirl of claims and counterclaims over who is driving the unrest, which has not only forced 429,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh in under a month, but also displaced tens of thousands of Buddhists and Hindus.
Relief agencies struggling to reach displaced Rohingya Muslims have accused the United Nations and foreign aid groups of helping only Muslims.
So far, the Myanmar government has granted only International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) organisations access to the area.
The UN suspended its activities and evacuated non-critical staff after the government suggested it had supported Rohingya insurgents.
Already battling against bad weather, tough terrain and obstructive bureaucracy, the Red Cross also ran into an angry mob who believed the foreign aid agencies had ignored the suffering of Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar's poorest state.
Last Wednesday, a mob in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, tried to block a boat carrying Red Cross aid to the north, where attacks by Rohingya militants on Aug 25 prompted Myanmar's generals to order a sweeping counter-insurgency offensive.
The mob was armed with sticks, knives and petrol bombs, and dispersed only after the police fired rubber bullets.
Four days earlier, a Myanmar Red Cross truck was stopped and searched by Sittwe residents.
"With heightened tensions in Rakhine state, humanitarian staff and private contractors are facing serious challenges in implementing life-saving activities," noted Mr Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.
In northern Rakhine, tens of thousands of people, most of them Rohingya, have been displaced but have not crossed into Bangladesh.
Closer to Sittwe, 140,000 Rohingya, who were displaced by previous religious unrest, have been confined to squalid camps.
They depend on foreign aid that has been severely restricted since Aug 25.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS