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Villagers take up arms: Rohingya militia 'bigger by the day'

COX'S BAZAR (Bangladesh) •Mr Mohammad Omar used to cross the border into Bangladesh to sell cigarettes.

But these days, he has a different agenda - restocking supplies for the fledgling Rohingya militia fighting Myanmar's security forces.

New recruits are being trained and armed in the hillsides across the border in Myanmar's strife-torn Rakhine state, Mr Omar told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Mr Omar, 20, said he was among more than 170 fighters from the Rohingya Muslim minority hiding at a jungle redoubt, from where they stage raids to seize guns from Myanmar security outposts.

"We attacked them like a swarm of hornets, shouting 'Allahu Akbar', wielding our sticks and machetes," Mr Omar told AFP of one raid, using a pseudonym to protect his identity.

"We outnumbered them 17 to one.

"Most of the soldiers got scared and ran for their lives. Then we grabbed their weapons and ammunition," said the young fighter clad in a tracksuit bottom, a polo shirt and sandals.

His account could not be independently verified by AFP, but it may offer an insight into the cat-and-mouse game between militants and security forces being played out in remote hamlets, fields and forest hideouts in Myanmar's western-most Rakhine state.

Mr Omar said he is a foot soldier with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), which claims it was behind coordinated attacks on Aug 25 on dozens of police posts and an army base that killed 11 Myanmar officers and sparked the worst fighting seen in Rakhine in months.

Arsa had emerged from the shadows last October when it staged similar attacks. That prompted a months-long security crackdown by Myanmar's army which left scores dead and forced 87,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.

The emergence of organised militancy proved a game-changer for Rakhine, a restive state beset by religious violence since 2012, analysts say.

Mr Omar joined the group - known locally as Harakah al-Yaqin - in the aftermath of the October assault as Rohingya answered the rallying cry to take up arms and defend their villages.

The group is steered by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia, and commanded in the field by experienced guerilla fighters, a report by the International Crisis Group states.

Myanmar classes the militants as "Bengali terrorists" and has accused them of indiscriminate murder and torching both Rohingya homes and those of other communities.

Myanmar's well-equipped army has been offered military assistance from Bangladesh to root out rebels near the border.

Arsa says it is fighting to protect the Rohingya from abuses by Myanmar security forces and the majority-Buddhist Rakhine community whom they accuse of trying to push them out.

Rohingya families told AFP their sons and brothers had stayed back to fight or journeyed back across the border once their relatives were away from the violence.

Mr Omar said 64 young Rohingya men had enlisted in his unit over a two-day period, walking from squalid camps in Bangladesh to join the fight.

"Many men are arriving, and al-Yaqin is getting bigger day by day. Our independence is not very far."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Villagers take up arms: Rohingya militia 'bigger by the day''. Print Edition | Subscribe