Soldiers have allegedly shot indiscriminately at unwarmed men, women and children during their intensified operations against Rohingya insurgents after three days of clashes with militants in the worst violence involving Burma‘s Muslim minority in five years.
The fighting – triggered by coordinated attacks on Friday by insurgents wielding sticks, knives and crude bombs on 30 police posts and an army base – has killed 104 people and led to the flight of large numbers of Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist civilians from the northern part of Rakhine state.
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since October, when a similar but much smaller series of Rohingya attacks on security posts prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of rights abuses.
One witness told Al Jazeera the army stormed his village in Maungdaw and began “firing indiscriminately at people’s cars and homes,” killing women, children and even a baby.
He said government forces were “shooting at everything that moved” and accused them of carrying out arson attacks.
“Women and children were among the dead,” he added. “Even a baby wasn’t spared.”
Thousands of Rohingya have attempted to flee the violence across the border to Bangladesh, where border guards tried to push them back, leaving many refugees stranded.
Rohingya have been fleeing Burma since the early 1990s and there are now about 400,000 in Bangladesh, which has said no new refugees will be allowed in.
Nevertheless, an estimated 3,000 people have crossed into Bangladesh in the past few days, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Reuters.
The Burmese government has evacuated thousands of non-Muslim villagers from the north of Rakhine state to towns, monasteries and police stations.
An Islamist group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, which Burma has declared a terrorist organisation, claimed responsibility for the recent attacks. It was also behind the violence in October.
The group has said in statements it has to fight to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Burma and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries, with communities marginalised and occasionally subjected to communal violence.