At least seven foreign migrants are dead and hundreds more homeless after rioting and attacks against migrant workers in Suriname left a border town in ashes, a Brazilian priest aiding victims said Sunday.
The Rev. Jose Vergilio said the riots in the town of Albina, which began late Thursday after a Brazilian allegedly stabbed a local man to death, have made the area uninhabitable for an estimated 300 people who fled.
Police have only confirmed one death without providing details. Vergilio's account suggested a higher toll, although the nationality of the dead migrants was unclear.
Authorities say at least 20 Brazilian women were raped in the tumult, and all Brazilians and many Chinese living in the area were evacuated.
Vergilio said more than 90 refugees, including several children, are currently living in a hotel in the capital, Paramaribo. At least 120 people took refuge at a military compound on Saturday before being transferred to the capital.
"They cannot go back to that place, there is so much confusion. They have nowhere to work or to live," Vergilio told The Associated Press by phone.
Police say 20 people including a local government official are in custody on charges including rape, theft and arson.
Brazil's foreign ministry announced Sunday it is sending two government representatives to Suriname to evaluate the situation. Suriname officials said military and police will step up patrols in Albina.
Vergilio, a Roman Catholic priest who has lived in the tiny South American nation for eight years, said the unrest is only the latest violence between people in Suriname and a growing community of Brazilian workers who cross the country's southern border to work for companies prospecting for gold.
"This has roots in older problems _ economic conflicts and conflicts over nationality," he said.
The rioting began Thursday, reportedly sparked by an argument at a Christmas Eve party that ended with a Brazilian man stabbing a man identified as a Maroon, a descendant of runaway African slaves.
Townspeople in Albina, which lies on the former Dutch colony's western border with French Guiana, reportedly began attacking Brazilians about an hour after the killing, and the violence spread to Chinese-owned businesses.
Photos taken by Vergilio and posted on Suriname's Radio Katolica FM show large areas of the town burnt to the ground.
The torched husks of cars, vans and trucks lined a parking lot; buildings displayed charred and blasted-out walls; and heaps of concrete blocks, garbage and roofing materials were piled on the ground.
Associated Press writer Jonathan M. Katz contributed from San Juan, Puerto Rico