WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday that Myanmar's Rohingya population was being subjected to "ethnic cleansing", accusing the security forces of perpetrating "horrendous atrocities" against the Muslim minority.
"After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya," Mr Tillerson said.
His comments, which come after he visited Myanmar last week, are the strongest condemnation yet by the United States of the military's crackdown against the Rohingya, which has triggered a major refugee crisis.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the mainly Buddhist country since the military launched a counter-insurgency operation in Rakhine state in late August, heading to neighbouring Bangladesh, which is one of the world's poorest countries.
"No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued," Mr Tillerson said in a statement.
"These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh."
While the army insists it has only targeted Rohingya rebels, refugees massing in grim Bangladeshi camps have given chilling and consistent accounts of widespread murder, rape and arson at the hands of security forces and Buddhist mobs.
Mr Tillerson said Myanmar's response to the crisis would be vital to determining the success of its transition to becoming "a more democratic society" and that those responsible for human rights abuses must be held accountable.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis will meet the Rohingya refugees in Dhaka when he visits the Bangladeshi capital next week, a Vatican spokesman said.
The Pope, who has repeatedly spoken out over the persecution of the religious minority by the Myanmar authorities, will meet a small group of Rohingyas during an interfaith meeting scheduled for Dec 1.
The Argentine pontiff's trip to Bangladesh will be preceded by a three-day stop in neighbouring Myanmar, which will now include a private meeting with the head of the country's army, General Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised by rights groups disappointed by her failure to condemn the crackdown or publicly criticise the military.