MAUNGDAW, Myanmar: Towns and villages across northern Rakhine state were deserted on Friday, as terrified residents fled a deadly military crackdown on foot and by air, fearing Myanmar’s restive western state could once again be ripped apart by violence.
Local officials believe hundreds of people from the area, home to many from the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, spent months planning attacks on police posts along the Bangladesh border that sparked the crisis this week.
Twenty-six civilians have died in the ensuing military lockdown, state media reported — rights groups say the army is gunning down unarmed Muslims on the streets but the army say troops are defending themselves against attack.
Law enforcement said 50 “violent attackers” tried several times to overrun a security office on Thursday but were repelled by police and soldiers.
Families have been streaming out of Maungdaw on foot, their worldly possessions stuffed into carrier bags and plastic buckets or strapped to the front of bicycle rickshaws.
Around 180 teachers, workers and residents were also airlifted out of the region at the epicentre of the crisis, while hundreds of government staff have poured into the state capital Sittwe.
AFP journalists said Maungdaw town and nearby villages were like ghost towns, with shops shuttered and armed police on patrol.
Many of those fleeing are local Buddhists, who make up the majority of the country but account for less than 10 per cent of the population in northern Rakhine, where most people are Muslim Rohingya.
Long-simmering animosity between the two groups erupted into communal violence in 2012 that ripped the impoverished state apart, leaving more than 100 dead and driving tens of thousands of Rohingya into squalid displacement camps.
“Many Rakhines are going back to Sittwe,” said a resident of Buthidaung, a town close to Maungdaw, too scared to give his name.
“We are also afraid here because the attackers ran away with guns.”
An AFP journalist reported seeing clouds of smoke billowing from a village on Thursday near charred remains of two dozen bamboo houses that the military said had been torched by “terrorists”.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement calling for calm, after receiving “disturbing reports of extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims, burning of houses, and arbitrary arrests by security forces”.
Rakhine state government spokesman Min Aung said a group of 200-300 border-post assailants had spent months plotting the raids, which were originally intended to hit as many as seven targets.
It is not clear who carried out Sunday’s border-post assaults, though local officials have publicly pointed the finger at Rohingya insurgents and others have privately blamed Bangladeshi groups across the border.
The military said late on Thursday that troops had captured a fifth suspect, along with a gun, ammunition and flags featuring the logo of the RSO, a Rohingya militant group long considered defunct.
An AFP journalist in the village where they were said to be found was prevented from investigating by soldiers, who said they were concerned attackers had laid landmines after a blast on the first day.
The RSO vigorously denied involvement in a statement sent to AFP.
But videos showing armed men speaking the Rohingya language calling for jihad that have been circulating on social media have raised concerns that some others from the persecuted minority may be turning towards militancy.
“The videos appear to be entirely authentic,” Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS-Jane’s, told AFP.
He noted the speaker in the first video uses the Chittagong dialect of Bengali spoken by the Rohingya, while the old guns and swords they carry match the kind authorities claim were used in the border post raids.
“The footage shows what appear to be a rabble of typical Rohingya youths — poorly dressed, ill-equipped and apparently untrained.”
Matthew Smith, chief executive of activist group Fortify Rights, said the videos appear to show Rohingya located in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border areas — though where exactly is unclear.
An aide of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, refused to confirm whether the video was real, but said the government “doesn’t feel worried” about it.
The Nobel laureate has faced international criticism for not doing more to help the Rohingya, and on Wednesday she vowed to follow the rule of law when investigating the border guard attacks.