Former U.N. chief 'deeply concerned' as Myanmar violence toll jumps

November 15, 2016 5:15 AM EST

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(This November 15 story corrects time period in paragraph 1, death toll in paragraph 9 and edits after official clarification that the figures referred to deaths since October 9)

By Antoni Slodkowski

YANGON (Reuters) - Sixty-nine members of what Myanmar's government has described as a Rohingya Muslim militant group and 17 members of the security forces have been killed since the start of fighting in western Rakhine State, the army said on Tuesday.

The death toll, announced in the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar daily, demonstrates the scale of the escalation of the conflict since violence erupted a month ago, and came as former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, who chairs a commission on resolving Rakhine's problems, voiced concern at the upsurge in violence.

The bloodshed is the most serious since hundreds were killed in communal clashes in Rakhine in 2012.

It has exposed the tension between Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's seven-month-old civilian administration and the army, which ruled for decades and retains key powers, including control of ministries responsible for security.

"I wish to express my deep concern over the recent violence in northern Rakhine State, which is plunging the state into renewed instability and creating new displacement," said former UN Secretary General Annan in a statement.

"All communities must renounce violence and I urge the security services to act in full compliance with the rule of law," he said. Members of the commission, set up by Suu Kyi in August, are in Rakhine for consultations with community members this week.

Soldiers have poured into the area along Myanmar's frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on Oct. 9 that killed nine police officers.

They have locked down the district, where the vast majority of residents are Rohingya Muslims, shutting out aid workers and independent observers, and conducted sweeps of villages.

A series of recent skirmishes and attacks had increased to 69 the tally of suspected Rohingya Muslim attackers killed since Oct. 9, while the security forces' toll stands at 17, according to state-owned media.

HUMANITARIAN AID

Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship, with many of the country's majority Buddhists regarding them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Rohingya face severe restrictions on travel and access to healthcare. Many were dependent on regular nutritional and medical aid long before the outbreak of fighting in October.

Top diplomats from the UN, Britain, the United States and several other countries traveled to the area in early November and said the government had agreed to the restoration of humanitarian aid.

But only 7,200 people from four villages have received food, while regular aid convoys to the area have not been restored, according to the UN's humanitarian agency.

"While this limited access is welcome, thousands of people remain in need of humanitarian assistance with up to 15,000 people displaced in the area of security operations," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement.

"Humanitarian services for more than 150,000 people have now been suspended for more than a month," it said.

Residents and rights advocates have accused security forces of summary executions, rapes and setting fire to homes in the recent violence.

The government and army reject the accusations, blaming the "violent attackers" for razing houses.

Rohingya rights advocates have distributed online video images of what they said were civilian casualties of the attacks, urging the international community to investigate.

Authorities have denied independent journalists access to the area, so Reuters has been unable to independently verify either the military accounts or the video clips.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alex Richardson)



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