YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar says dozens of Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh have returned voluntarily and will be sent to a transit centre pending resettlement.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar after a violent army crackdown began last August in the western state of Rakhine, a process that the US and UN have described as ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar has said it is ready to take them back and has traded accusations with Bangladesh over who is responsible for the delay in implementing a repatriation deal. Critics question its sincerity.
The long-persecuted stateless minority have been reluctant to return without guarantees of basic rights and protections, including the right to return to their old villages rather than to transit camps.
A total of 58 Rohingya have crossed back into Myanmar after they could "no longer find it tenable" to live in Bangladeshi refugee camps, according to a statement published in state media Monday from the office of Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
They were detained for failing to follow proper repatriation procedures until the decision to "pardon" them and allow them to resettle in Myanmar, the statement said, adding they would be "temporarily" housed in a transit camp.
The returnees entered Myanmar in different stages over the last four months, said Suu Kyi spokesman Zaw Htay.
Myanmar did not give any information on the group's members and Bangladeshi authorities said they were unaware of any details.
"We haven't heard of any such incidents of refugees returning to Rakhine through their own volition or under their own arrangement from the camps," Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told AFP.
The UN has said conditions in Rakhine are not ripe for repatriation.
"The Government of Myanmar is busy telling the world that it is ready to receive Rohingya returnees, while at the same time its forces are continuing to drive them into Bangladesh," said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour in March.
"Safe, dignified and sustainable returns are of course impossible under current conditions."
The group will be the first to be sent to a giant transit camp on the Myanmar side of the Bangladeshi border established as part of the stalled repatriation deal reached late last year.
The Rohingya are reviled by many in Myanmar, where they are branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite their long roots in Rakhine state.