Thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims are trying to cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh, Bangladeshi security officials said on Saturday, as fresh fighting erupted in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state.
Rohingya militants launched attacks overnight Thursday on more than two dozen police and border outposts. The government said the death toll has climbed to 96, including nearly 80 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces.
The office of Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said military and border police responded to the attacks by launching “clearance operations.”
It marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that intensified last October, when a similar offensive prompted a major military sweep beset by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
Some 3,000 Rohingya have arrived at the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh, Manzurul Hassan Khan, a Bangladeshi border guard commander, told Reuters.
“About 500 Rohingya, mostly women and children, spent the last night in a marshy area waiting to cross over,” said Khan. “We protected them the whole night. Today they went back.”
Hamid Hossain, 42, managed to escape the shooting in Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh on Saturday with a group of three families.
“We waited all night after we were pushed backed by Bangladesh border guards last night. This morning, we managed to enter somehow,” Hossain said.
Roshida Khatun, 40, also left everything behind and crossed into Bangladesh on Saturday morning.
She said many others were still waiting to enter Bangladesh. “If they are not allowed in they will die,” she said to the Associated Press.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said it was concerned that thousands of “unarmed Myanmar nationals” had assembled near the border to enter the country.
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Rakhine, but they are denied citizenship and are seen by many officials in Myanmar as "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh.
Since the massive counter-offensive last year, about 87,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. United Nations investigators who interviewed some of them said troops likely committed crimes against humanity.
The Myanmar government said there had been several large clashes involving hundreds of Rohingya across northern Rakhine on Saturday. The fiercest fighting took place on the outskirts of the major town of Maungdaw.
Maungdaw resident Nay Myo Lin, 27, told Reuters that security forces opened fire on scores of what appeared to be Muslim men with guns near the Alodaw Pyae Buddhist monastery.
Fearful Rakhine Buddhist residents in the Maungdaw town gathered in homes while men stood guard by the windows, said Ohmar Lin, a female resident of the town.
“We don’t go out of the house, but I am ready to fight - we are prepared with knives and sticks to protect ourselves if they come here,” she said.