Rohingya militants say ceasefire to end on Oct 9 but open to government peace deal if offered

Rohingya refugees look on at a food distribution centre at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on Oct 7, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Rohingya militants whose attacks triggered an army crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state said on Saturday (Oct 7) that their one-month ceasefire would end in two days, but added they were open to a peace deal if the government offered it.

In a statement released through its Twitter account, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) said its unilateral truce would end at midnight on Oct 9.

"The humanitarian pause was conducted in order to enable humanitarian actors to assess and respond to the humanitarian crisis in Arakan (Rakhine)," the statement said.

"If at any stage, the Burmese government is inclined to peace, then Arsa will welcome that inclination and reciprocate," it added, using the former name for Myanmar.

The statement did not include any direct threats of new violence.

Myanmar's government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday, but has previously said the country does not "negotiate with terrorists".

The shadowy, poorly-armed Arsa tipped western Myanmar's Rakhine state into crisis when it ambushed police posts on Aug 25.

The army responded with a sweeping crackdown that the United Nations says amounts to ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority, who have faced decades of persecution.

More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the last six weeks, an exodus that has spiralled into one of the world's most urgent refugee crises.

In its statement, Arsa said it had helped provide "safe passage" to refugees fleeing to Bangladesh.

While the worst of the bloodshed appears to have abated in recent weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya continue to stream over to Bangladesh, passing through a violence-scarred region where hundreds of villages have been reduced to smouldering ash.

Rohingya refugees and rights groups have accused the army of setting the fires with the help of Buddhist vigilante mobs.

But the military has denied the charge, instead accusing militants of razing their own homes to drum up global support and committing other atrocities against Buddhists and Hindus.

'Willing To Fight'

Myanmar authorities have cut off access to the conflict zone, making it difficult to verify claims over who is driving the communal bloodshed that has intensified already bitter ethnic hatreds.

Aid groups have also been unable to reach vulnerable Rohingya communities still living in the region, as tensions with Rakhine Buddhist neighbours have skyrocketed.

Arsa's fighting capacity at this stage is unknown.

The group, which launched its first major attack last October, remains hopelessly outgunned by the Myanmar military and relies mostly on crude weapons.

But analysts say its leadership has spent years building up support in village cells across northern part of Rakhine, recruiting young men to the cause of defending the Rohingya's political rights.

In the squalid refugee settlements sprouting up in Bangladesh, alleged Arsa recruiters have told AFP that they have enlisted hundreds who are willing to go back to Myanmar to fight.

But other refugees told AFP they simply wanted an end to the violence.

"The (Myanmar) military and Arsa should sit in a roundtable meeting... there is no point in killing and butchering each other," said Mohammed Idriss, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh's Kutupalong camp.

He is among hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh camps before the latest exodus, having fled previous waves of persecution.

The Muslim minority has faced decades of systematic repression in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, with many living under so-called apartheid-like restrictions that analysts have long warned could breed extremism.

The government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group, instead describing them as "Bengali" interlopers.

The view is widely shared by the Buddhist majority, who have shown little sympathy for the Rohingya, lavishing unexpected support on an army that once ruled the country with an iron fist.

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