UN 'begins evacuation' from unrest-hit Myanmar state

The United Nations today began evacuating staff from its base in western Myanmar where fierce sectarian unrest has seen deadly clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

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YANGON // The United Nations today began evacuating staff from its base in western Myanmar where fierce sectarian unrest has seen deadly clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

Ashok Nigam, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Yangon, said roughly 44 workers and their families were leaving Maungdaw in troubled Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.

Soldiers patrolled tense streets in the riot-hit state today where the government declared a state of emergency to deal with deadly clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

The surge in sectarian violence presents a major test for President Thein Sein, a former general credited with pushing through a series of dramatic political reforms since the end of decades of military rule last year.

In Sittwe, the capital of troubled Rakhine state, an AFP reporter saw the charred remains of houses as well as troops outside monasteries and mosques, while several military trucks were at the city's airport.

An uneasy calm descended on the streets of the city, where residents welcomed the tight security.

"The situation seems back to normal after the soldiers came into the town for our security," said a Buddhist resident who did not want to be named.

Rakhine, which is predominantly Buddhist, is home to a large number of Muslims including the Rohingya, a stateless people described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants and view them with hostility, describing them as "Bengalis".

Both the local Buddhists and the Rohingya have traded angry accusations over the eruption in sectarian violence.

"Yesterday (Sunday) the Bengalis burnt down houses and also killed some people but we don't know how many," said the local woman, who said she had not witnessed the incidents herself.

Abu Tahay, of the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the Rohingya, said a number of Rohingya had been shot dead by security forces or killed by Buddhists.

"I'm still worried because there are racist Rakhine people. They don't believe in peaceful cohabitation," he said by telephone from Yangon.

AFP was unable to verify either account.

Thein Sein ordered the state of emergency for Rakhine state in response to unrest that saw hundreds of Buddhist villagers' homes set ablaze and has left seven people dead since Friday, state television said.

Violent attacks fuelled by "hatred and revenge based on religion and nationality" in Rakhine could spread to other parts of the country, Myanmar's leader warned in an address to the nation late Sunday.

He said the unrest threatened to undermine national stability, development and democratic reforms by his government, which took power last year following the end of decades of outright military rule.

Former colonial power Britain on Sunday urged Myanmar to open talks with community groups "to end the violence and to protect all members of the local population".

It also warned its citizens "against all but essential travel to Rakhine State."

A cycle of apparent revenge attacks has gripped the state following the recent rape and murder of a Rakhine woman.

Last Sunday, an angry Buddhist mob attacked a bus, mistakenly believing the perpetrators of the rape were on board, and beat 10 Muslims to death.

Rioting then flared Friday when at least four Buddhists were killed in the state, with a second wave of violence in remote villages early Saturday.

Police and military units have been deployed to bring an end to the unrest, in which 17 people were also wounded and nearly 500 houses destroyed, according to official media.

Myanmar's Muslims -- of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent -- account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population in a country where for many people Buddhism forms an intrinsic part of national identity.

According to the UN, there are nearly 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar, mostly in Rakhine. Another one million or more are thought to live in other countries.

Authorities in Bangladesh on Sunday said they were stepping up security along the border and in refugee camps where tens of thousands of Rohingya live.

On Sunday around 600 ethnic Rakhine gathered at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a revered Buddhist site in the main city of Yangon, demanding "Bengalis" be "removed from Myanmar".