COX'S BAZAR (Bangladesh) • More than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims may have been killed in a Myanmar army crackdown, according to two senior United Nations officials dealing with refugees fleeing the violence, suggesting that the death toll has been far greater than previously reported.
The officials, from two separate UN agencies working in Bangladesh, where nearly 70,000 Rohingya have fled in recent months, said they were concerned that the outside world had not fully grasped the severity of the crisis unfolding in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
"The talk until now has been of hundreds of deaths. This is probably an underestimation - we could be looking at thousands,"said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Both officials, in separate interviews, cited the weight of testimony gathered by their agencies from refugees over the past four months for concluding that the death toll likely exceeded 1,000.
Myanmar's presidential spokesman, Mr Zaw Htay, said the latest reports from military commanders were that fewer than 100 people had been killed in a counter-insurgency operation against Rohingya militants who attacked police border posts in October.
Asked about the UN officials' comments, he said: "Their number is much greater than our figure. We have to check on the ground."
In addition to the information the two UN officials gave Reuters, a report released by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) last Friday gave accounts of mass killings and gang rapes by troops in north-western Myanmar in recent months, which it said probably constituted crimes against humanity.
The government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi said last week that it would investigate these allegations. It had previously denied almost all accusations of killings, rapes and arson.
The OHCHR report cited supporting evidence, including bullet and knife wounds sustained by refugees and satellite imagery showing the destruction of villages. The report was based on interviews with 220 people, the majority of whom said they knew of people who had been killed or had disappeared.
According to refugees' accounts, the army intensified its offensive in northern Rakhine in mid-November, unleashing what the OHCHR report described as a "calculated policy of terror" after an incident in which several hundred Rohingya attacked an outnumbered group of soldiers, killing an officer.
The OHCHR report details deaths in random firings, including from helicopters, targeted killings of imams and teachers, slitting of throats, and people being locked inside burning houses.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis on Wednesday spoke out over the alleged maltreatment of the Rohingya, who he said were being "tortured and killed" for their faith.
The pontiff described the Rohingya as "good and peaceful people" who "have suffered for years".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE