COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AP) — Aid agencies were struggling to cope with a nonstop flood of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, where some 146,000 have arrived hungry and terrified after fleeing renewed violence in Myanmar — a crisis the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, dismissed as a misinformation campaign.
With the influx pushing existing Rohingya refugee camps to the brink, Bangladesh pledged to build at least one more. The International Organization for Migration has pleaded for $18 million in foreign aid to help feed and shelter tens of thousands now packed into makeshift settlements or stranded in a no-man's land between the two countries' borders.
U.N. agencies said they were distributing food to new arrivals, about 80 percent of whom were women and children, joining about 100,000 who had already been sheltering in Bangladesh after fleeing earlier convulsions of violence in majority-Buddhist Myanmar.
"We've not had something on this scale here in many years," said Pavlo Kolovos, the Bangladesh mission leader for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, in a statement. "Our teams are seeing streams of people arriving destitute and extremely traumatized," including many in need of urgent medical care for violence-related injuries, severe infections or childbirth complications.
With so many Rohingya fleeing, it's unclear how many remain in Myanmar amid reports of soldiers burning villages and killing civilians. Before the recent violence, aid experts had estimated about 1 million Rohingya were living in northern Rakhine state, but aid agencies have been unable to access the area since.
"We are unable to reach the 28,000 children to whom we were previously providing psychosocial care or the more than 4,000 children who were treated for malnutrition in Buthidaung and Maungdaw" in Rakhine, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said. "Our clean water and sanitation work has been suspended, as have school repairs that were under way."
Turkey said that Myanmar agreed to allow its aid officials to enter Rakhine state with a ton of food and goods for Rohingya, and that its foreign minister would visit a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Thursday.
The violence has driven some Rohingya to flee into forests near their villages or to beaches on the Bay of Bengal in hopes of rescue.
Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered a protest note to Myanmar's envoy Wednesday expressing concern about reports that Myanmar's security forces had planted land mines along the border, and demanding immediate measures to de-escalate the violence.
Seeking to counter the storm of international criticism, Suu Kyi's top security adviser on Wednesday asserted that security forces were acting with restraint in pursuing "terrorists."
National Security Advisor Thaung Tun told a news conference Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw, that he was "deeply disappointed and saddened by the disinformation campaign being waged around the world with regard to the situation in Rakhine."
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi complained to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call Tuesday that Turkey's deputy prime minister was a victim of fake news when he posted photos purportedly showing dead Rohingya that were not related to the crisis. The photos on Mehmet Simsek's Twitter account have been taken down.
According to her office, Suu Kyi said such misinformation helps promote the interests of "terrorists," a reference to the Rohingya insurgents whose attacks on Myanmar security posts on Aug. 25 triggered the latest military crackdown and streams of refugees.
The crisis response director for Amnesty International called Suu Kyi's response "unconscionable."
"This is a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe," said Tirana Hassan in a statement, noting the Rohingya streaming across the border and thousands of others displaced in Rakhine.
"In her first comments on the crisis, instead of promising concrete action to protect the people in Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be downplaying the horrific reports coming out of the area," Hassan said.
The group that claimed responsibility for the Aug. 25 attacks on Myanmar police posts, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, says it acted to defend persecuted Rohingya communities, but has been vague about its ideology and ultimate goals.
The military said it responded with "clearance operations" aimed at rooting out insurgents, and that nearly 400 people, most of them insurgents, have died in clashes. It blamed the insurgents for setting Rohingya villages on fire.
Many displaced Rohingya, however, said it was Myanmar soldiers who set their homes aflame and fired indiscriminately around their villages in Rakhine state.
Rohingya Muslims have long faced discrimination in the Southeast Asian country.
Associated Press journalist Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to the report.