SITTWE, Myanmar — Surging sectarian violence in western Myanmar has left at least 64 people dead and scores more wounded, a local official said Friday, casting a shadow over the government's reform drive.
People have fled their homes in droves following the latest clashes in Rakhine state, where months of communal tensions have torn apart communities and left tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Rohingya living in squalid camps.
"The total death toll is 34 men and 30 women," Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing told AFP. He revised down an earlier toll of 112 people from the renewed violence which erupted on October 21, blaming a "mistake in calculating".
The casualties were from both sides, he said, adding most were stabbed as violence engulfed four townships forcing an estimated 3,000 Rohingya to escape in boats hoping to dock near existing refugee camps on the outskirts of Sittwe.
"But we cannot allow them (into the camps) as we are worried of possible clashes with residents. They are on an island opposite Sittwe," Win Myaing said, conceding authorities are now struggling to provide relief to them.
More than 150 people have been killed in the state since June, according to the authorities, who have imposed emergency rule in the face of continued tension in the region.
The United Nations responded to the bloodshed on Friday with a stark warning that Myanmar's reforms are under threat from the continued unrest between ethnic Rakhine and the Rohingya.
"The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped," a spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement released in Yangon.
"If this is not done... the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardised."
President Thein Sein has been widely-praised for overseeing sweeping reforms in the former junta-ruled nation, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.
But the Rakhine violence poses a stern challenge to the reform process.
State media on Friday took the rare step of acknowledging the damage the resurgent violence is causing to the nation's image at a pivotal moment.
The "international community is watching", a statement signed by the president's office said in government mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar.
Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh by the government and many Burmese -- who call them "Bengalis".
The latest violence, which prompted Myanmar's main Islamic organisations to cancel celebrations for the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday that began on Friday, is seen as serious challenge to the government.
Myanmar's lower house of parliament adopted a motion on Friday to further beef-up security in the affected areas, including around the state's main tourist attraction of Mrauk U and Kyaukpyu, where a major pipeline to transport Myanmar gas to China begins.
An AFP reporter in the state capital Sittwe, several dozen kilometres from the flashpoint townships, said the situation was relatively calm with security forces dotting the streets but no sign of violence.
But at Sittwe hospital, where scores of wounded Rakhine are being treated, there was open rancour towards the Rohingya from the injured.
"We really suffer because of these Muslims. They live in our Rakhine State," said Zaw Chit Than, who said he was hit by three bullets fired by soldiers preventing a group of Rakhine reaching Rohingya rivals.
"The best thing to solve this problem is the government does not keep them in Rakhine State."
As tensions boil, thousands of Muslim Rohingya remain trapped behind barbed wire and armed guards in a ghetto in the centre of the capital.
Tens of thousands more are housed in camps beyond the city limits as segregation between the two communities becomes more pronounced.
The stateless Rohingya, speaking a Bengali dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, have long been considered by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.
Bangladesh on Thursday mobilised extra patrols along its river border with Myanmar amid reports of dozens of boats carrying Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing the clashes.
Dhaka drew criticism from the UN after it turned back boatloads of Rohingya, mainly women and children, after the June violence. But the nation said it would not accept any new refugees because it was already dealing with an estimated 300,000 Rohingya.
The UN's refugee arm has said it fears large numbers of Rohingya will attempt the perilous sea journey south over the coming weeks to escape violence in Rakhine and the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh.
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