YANGON (AFP) - Searchers on Monday (Sept 25) found 17 more bodies in mass graves in Myanmar's Rakhine state, the government said, a day after the bodies of 28 Hindu villagers were exhumed in what the army says is evidence of a massacre by Muslim Rohingya militants.
Northern Rakhine has been ravaged by communal violence since Rohingya insurgents staged deadly raids on police posts on Aug 25, unleashing an army crackdown that has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The vast majority - more than 430,000 - are Rohingya Muslims who have fled across the border to Bangladesh from a military campaign which the UN says likely amounts to ethnic cleansing.
But tens of thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and the region's small population of Hindus, have also bolted from their homes, saying they were attacked by Rohingya militants.
On Sunday, the army said it had discovered two mud pits filled with 28 Hindu corpses - mostly women and children - outside the village of Ye Baw Kyaw in northern Rakhine.
The military blamed the killings on Rohingya "extremist terrorists".
Seventeen more bodies were found on Monday, said government spokesman Zaw Htay.
Ni Maul, a Hindu leader who joined the search alongside soldiers and police, said the new corpses were of Hindu men aged between 30-50 and buried in two pits near the other grave sites.
"We are still searching together with soldiers and police as we believe more than 100 people were killed at that time," he told AFP.
Displaced Hindus from that area, known as Kha Maung Seik, have told AFP that Rohingya fighters stormed into their communities on Aug 25, killing many and taking others into the forest.
They showed AFP a list of 102 people from two villages - Ye Baw Kyaw and Taung Ywar - who are feared dead by distraught relatives now sheltering in camps.
Several Hindu women were also abducted by the militants, according to the displaced Hindus, who wept as they recounted the bloodshed.
With the government blocking access to the conflict zone, it is difficult to verify the range of accusations that have intensified ethnic hatreds in Rakhine.
But the army has steadfastly blamed violence on the Rohingya - a Muslim minority it has been trying for years to eject from Myanmar - while highlighting the suffering of other ethnic groups swept up in the violence.
ETHNIC TIES SHATTERED
The focal point of the unrest, northern Rakhine's Maungdaw district, was once home to a fragile mosaic of religious communities, dominated by the Rohingya.
But vast swathes of the border region are now completely emptied of Muslim residents, with nearly 40 per cent of Rohingya villages abandoned in under a month.
Frightened and dispossessed ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus, who have largely fled south, say they see no future alongside their former Muslim neighbours.
"I do not dare go back to the village," said Kyaw Kyaw Naing, one of hundreds of displaced Hindus sheltering in a derelict football stadium in Rakhine's state capital Sittwe.
"We still do not know yet how many of those dead bodies include relatives from our camp," added the 34-year-old, whose Hindu name is Shu Bown.
In Bangladesh, relief agencies are struggling to meet the vast needs of the Rohingya cramming into shanties in Cox's Bazar, an influx the UN has described as the "fastest and most urgent refugee emergency in the world".
Yet there is little sympathy for the Muslim minority inside Myanmar, where Islamophobia has been stewing for years among the overwhelmingly Buddhist population.
Even before the latest eruption of violence, the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya were relegated to precarious and impoverished lives, with hundreds of thousands trapped in refugee camps following previous persecution.
Those outside the camps were subject to laws that stripped them of citizenship and severely restricted their movements and access to jobs, schooling and healthcare.
Analysts say the repression helped give rise to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, whose raids plunged the region into crisis.