Ethnic Rohingya militants in western Myanmar launched overnight attacks on more than two dozen police and border outposts, leaving 71 people dead, the government said Friday, in a significant escalation of their armed struggle.
The office of the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said military and border police responded to the Thursday night attacks by launching "clearance operations."
A witness in Maungdaw township, contacted by phone, said soldiers entered her village at about 10 a.m. on Friday, burned homes and property, and shot dead at least 10 people.
The witness, who asked to be identified by her nickname, Emmar, because of fear of retribution, said villagers fled in many directions but mostly to a nearby mountain range. She said gunshots and explosions could be heard and smoke could still be seen Friday evening.
A militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, took responsibility for the overnight attacks on more than 25 locations, saying they were in defense of Muslim Rohingya communities that had been abused by government forces. It issued its statement on Twitter on an account deemed legitimate by advocates of Rohingya rights.
The clashes were the worst since an attack by the militants on three border posts last October killed nine policemen, setting off months of brutal counterinsurgency operations by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya communities in Rakhine state. Human rights groups accused the army of carrying out massive human rights abuses including killing, rape, and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings.
The army's abuses in turn fueled further resentment toward the government among the Rohingya, most of whom are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh without any of the civil rights of citizens. ARSA took advantage of the resentment by stepping up recruitment of members.
The new attacks seem likely to set off a new cycle of repression and resistance.
The Rohingya have long faced severe discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and were the targets of inter-communal violence in 2012 that killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people – predominantly Rohingya– from their homes to camps for the internally displaced, where most remain.
According to the United Nations, more than 80,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since last October.
Thursday night's attacks began a few hours after a Rakhine Advisory Commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan submitted its final report and recommended that the government act quickly to improve economic development and social justice in Rakhine state to resolve violence between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Suu Kyi's office said on its Facebook page that the attacks were intended to coincide with the release of Mr. Annan's report.
ARSA also referred to the report, saying the army in recent weeks had stepped up activity in order to derail any attempt to implement the recommendations. It said it had tried to avoid conflict until army atrocities became intolerable and action was needed to defend Rohingya civilians.
The announcement from Suu Kyi's office said 30 police outposts had been attacked. It said in addition to the 12 dead, 11 people on the government side had been injured, three seriously. It said the attackers, some of whom were armed with machetes, had seized six guns.
The statement also said the attackers destroyed refugee camps and burned down homes.
One border guard policeman said two officers from his outpost at Taung Pasa village had been killed. "More than 150 Muslim attackers were surrounding our outpost with machetes and guns," the officer, Htun Naing, said by phone.
The Rakhine Advisory Commission, established in August 2016 at Suu Kyi's behest, said the situation in Rakhine state is becoming more precarious and requires a sustained and coordinated effort by civilian and military authorities. The commission has six members from Myanmar and three foreigners, including Annan.
"Unless concerted action led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine state," Annan said at a news conference in Yangon to present the report.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.