THANDWE, Myanmar (AP) — Terrified Muslim families hid in forests in western Myanmar on Wednesday, one day after rampaging Buddhist mobs killed a 94-year-old woman and burned dozens of homes despite the first trip to the volatile region by President Thein Sein since unrest erupted last year.
The violence near Thandwe, a coastal town the president was due to visit later Wednesday on the second day of his tour of Rakhine state, raised new questions about government's failure to curb anti-Muslim attacks and or protect the embattled minority.
The latest unrest flared in several villages outside Thandwe, which was tense but quiet, with security forces out in force ahead of the president's arrival. That security presence, however, failed to deter the attackers a day earlier, with soldiers and police making no efforts to step in on Tuesday, according to witnesses.
In Thabyuchaing, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Thandwe, more than 700 rioters, some swinging swords, took to the streets, police officer Kyaw Naing said. An elderly Muslim woman died from stab wounds in the clashes that followed, the officer said, putting the number of houses set on fire at between 70 and 80.
Another officer, however, said only 19 homes were burned.
Smoldering buildings — and several injured Buddhist Rakhines — were also seen by The Associated Press in Shwe Hlay. A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have authority to talk to the media, said Linthi also was hit by rioters. Both villages are about 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Thandwe.
A Muslim resident of Thandwe, Myo Min, said a small mosque in Kyikanyet, about 27 miles from Thandwe, was burned by attackers Tuesday night. Police said they were trying to confirm that report.
Myo Min said he was concerned about the safety of families who fled Tuesday's violence. Many families in Thabyuchaing, he said, fled into forests when their village was attacked.
"Many of them including women and children are still hiding and they are cornered and unable to come out," Myo Min said. "They need food and water and Muslim elders are discussing with authorities to evacuate them or send food."
One Muslim resident who fled Tuesday, Thar Thar, said he had fled to the home of a friend with his wife and child. It was not clear how many people have fled.
On Tuesday, he arrived in the state, Sittwe, then traveled to Mrauk-U, the spiritual heartland of the state's majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population. He also traveled to the northern town of Maungdaw.
Early Wednesday, Thein Sein visited both displaced Muslims and Buddhists in camps outside Sittwe, according to Myo Than, a state government official.
Sectarian clashes that began in Rakhine in June 2012 have since morphed into an anti-Muslim campaign that has spread to towns and villages nationwide. So far, hundreds of people have been killed and more than 140,000 have fled their homes, the vast majority of them Muslims.
Many of those targeted have been ethnic Rohingya Muslims, considered by many in the country to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, though many of their families arrived generations ago.
But in the latest flare-up this week, the victims were Kamans, another Muslim minority group, whose citizenship is recognized.
The trouble started Saturday, when a Buddhist taxi driver alleged he'd been verbally abused by a Muslim shop owner while trying to park his vehicle, according to a state government spokesman.
Hours later, rocks were thrown at the man's home. And by Sunday, as anger spread, two houses owned by Muslims were burned to the ground.
Rights groups say Thein Sein's government has done little to crack down on religious intolerance and failed to bridge a divide that has left hundreds of thousands of Muslims marginalized, many of them trapped in prison-like camps for those who have been displaced.
Initially confined to Rakhine state, sectarian attacks have spread this year into Myanmar's heartland, ravaging several other cities across the country. At the same time, a Buddhist-led campaign called "969" has taken root nationwide. Its supporters urge Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims.
While radical monks have helped fuel the crisis, saying Muslims pose a threat to Buddhist culture and traditions, critics say a failure by the government and society as a whole to speak out is helping perpetuate the violence.
"Political, religious and community leaders need to condemn hate speech," Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group said in a statement.
"Those who are spreading messages of intolerance and hatred must not go unchallenged. Otherwise, this issue could come to define the new Myanmar, tarnishing its international image and threatening the success of its transition away from decades of authoritarianism," he said.
Muslims, who account for about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people, have been the main victims of the violence, but they have been prosecuted for crimes related to the clashes far more often than members of the Buddhist majority.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar.