The United States expressed concern about the crisis in Myanmar and urged authorities to allow humanitarian access to restive Rakhine state as violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority continues.
Refugees arriving in already packed camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, many exhausted and desperately hungry, have brought harrowing tales of murder, rape and widespread arson. Some 164,000 Rohingya have fled since violence erupted two weeks ago.
“There has been a significant displacement of local populations following serious allegations of human rights abuses – including mass burnings of Rohingya villages and violence conducted by security forces and also armed civilians,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Thursday.
“We again condemn deadly attacks on Burmese security forces, but join the international community in calling on those forces to prevent further attacks on local populations.”
The United Nations says more than 250,000 refugees, most of them Rohingya, have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh since violence began last October.
Witnesses say entire villages have been burned to the ground since Rohingya fighters launched a series of attacks on August 25, prompting the latest military-led crackdown.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday her government was doing its best to protect everyone in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi did not refer specifically to the exodus of the minority Rohingya.
Critics have accused her of not speaking out for the Rohingya, some 1.1 million people who have long complained of persecution and are seen by many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Some have called for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked.
“We have to take care of our citizens, we have to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens,” Suu Kyi said in comments to Reuters Television’s Indian partner, Asian News International.
“Of course, our resources are not as complete and adequate as we would like them to be but, still, we try our best and we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law.”
Suu Kyi said the situation in Rakhine has been difficult for many decades and so it was “a little unreasonable” to expect her administration, which has been in power for 18 months, to have resolved it already.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, on Thursday posted what he said were “photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses”.
The pictures of several sword-wielding women wearing headscarfs and men in Islamic prayer caps setting a house on fire, which were published in one of the country’s leading newspapers, were also shared widely by the military.
“These photos showing that Bengalis are torching their houses emerge at a time when international media have made groundless accusations of setting fire to Bengali houses by the government security forces and the killings of Bengalis,” said the Eleven Media daily
The photographs sparked controversy on social media with many people who identified themselves as Myanmar Muslims saying they appeared staged.
Rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh say the Myanmar army has been trying to force them out of Rakhine state with a campaign of arson and killings.
Boatloads of exhausted Rohingya continued to arrive in the Cox’s Bazar region of neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Many refugees are stranded in no-man’s land between the border with Myanmar,” medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a statement.
Police in Bangladesh say they recovered the bodies of 17 people, many of them children, who drowned when boats packed with Rohingya refugees sank at the mouth of the Naf river.
Rohingya refugee Tayeba Khatun said she and her family had waited four days for a place on a boat after fleeing her township in Rakhine.
“People were squeezing into whatever space they could find on the rickety boats. I saw two of those boats sink,” she told AFP news agency inside Bangladesh.
“Most managed to swim ashore but the children were missing.”
Mazor Mustafa, a Bangladeshi businessman handing out food and rehydration fluids at one refugee camp, said food was running low as more people arrived.
“These people are hungry, starving to death together,” he said.