SITTWE: At least 88 people have been killed in sectarian bloodshed in Myanmar this month, the authorities said Monday, with more than 26,000 others forced to flee a wave of rioting and arson.
Hundreds more homes were burned down over the weekend as security forces struggled to quell clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine that have seen whole neighbourhoods razed.
Four more deaths were reported, although they were believed to be from earlier clashes.
"Altogether 49 men and 39 women have been killed," a government official told AFP, bringing the total death toll since June to about 180. Rights groups fear the actual number killed could be much higher.
"About 300 houses were burnt down in Pauktaw town on Sunday but there were no casualties in that incident," said the official, who did not want to be named.
Decades-old animosity between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims exploded in June after the apparent rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman sparked a series of vicious revenge attacks.
Myanmar's 800,000 stateless Rohingya are viewed by the United Nations as among the most persecuted minorities on the planet.
Seen by the Myanmar government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, they face tight restrictions on their movements and limited access to employment, education and public services.
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Saturday released satellite images showing what it described as "extensive destruction" in a mainly Rohingya Muslim area of Kyaukpyu - the site of a major pipeline taking gas to China.
Virtually all structures appear to have been wiped from the landscape.
Other Muslims in Rakhine have also been swept up in the latest violence, including the Kaman, one of Myanmar's officially recognised ethnic groups.
The United Nations estimates that 26,500 people - mostly Muslims -have been displaced since October 21, in addition to about 75,000 people already crammed into squalid camps following the June unrest.
The new fighting has caused an influx of boats carrying thousands of people to the Rakhine state capital Sittwe.
"It's not good for security in the city as thousands of people are flooding in," said another official on condition of anonymity.
"We don't want to see any clashes here, so the new displaced should be sent somewhere else," he added. "The central government and local government will arrange for that."
The unrest has prompted a growing international outcry, with the United Nations warning it could jeopardise the country's widely praised reforms.