KYAUKTAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - The number of people killed in six days of unrest in western Myanmar reached at least 112 on Friday as security forces used deadly force to break up the worst sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in years.
The United Nations warned that Myanmar's fledgling democracy could be "irreparably damaged" by the clashes, which come just five months after communal unrest killed more than 80 people and displaced at least 75,000 in the same region
Ethnic Buddhist Rakhines told Reuters they were shot by security forces struggling to impose order on Rakhine State, where violence with Rohingya Muslims has engulfed several districts, including Kyaukpyu where a multibillion-dollar China-Myanmar pipeline starts.
The escalating death toll, which has doubled from Wednesday, severely tests the reformist government's ability to contain historic ethnic and religious tensions suppressed during nearly a half century of military rule that ended last year.
"The fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized," a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that described the violence as "deeply troubling".
"The widening mistrust between the communities is being exploited by militant and criminal elements to cause large-scale loss of human lives."
Win Myaing, information officer of Rakhine State government, said 112 people, including 61 women, had been killed and 72 had been wounded as of Friday.
At least 2,000 houses and eight religious buildings had been destroyed by Wednesday, according to a statement from the president's office issued late on Thursday.
A Reuters journalist spoke to Rakhine people treated for bullet wounds and other injuries at a tiny, ill-equipped hospital in Kyauktaw, a town north of the state capital, Sittwe. One man died soon after arriving.
The military opened fire to prevent Rakhine villagers on two boats from storming a Rohingya Muslim community, said Aung Kyaw Min, a 28-year-old Rakhine from Taung Bwe with a bullet in his leg. "I don't know why the military shot at us," he said. Two people died and 10 were wounded, said the villagers.
In a separate incident on Thursday, security forces shot at a crowd of Rakhine protesters on Kyauktaw's outskirts, killing two and wounding four, said Hla Hla Myint, 17, whose forehead was grazed by a bullet.
The shooting of Buddhists is a sign that the military, which has been accused in the past of siding with Buddhists, is getting tougher following international criticism that Myanmar's new government was doing too little to protect Muslim Rohingyas.
There were widespread unconfirmed reports of razed and burning homes, gunfights and Rohingya fleeing by boat, but access to Rakhine State was restricted and information hard to verify.
The United States, which has been lifting sanctions on Myanmar as relations improve with its quasi-civilian government, said it was deeply concerned over the violence and urged all parties to show restraint and halt attacks.
In Yathedaung, a town northwest of Sittwe, security forces opened fire in a Rohingya district and about 10 houses were burned, residents told Tun Min Thein of the Wan Lark foundation, which helps ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Earlier in the week, about 800 houses were burned down around Kyaukpyu, about 120 km (75 miles) south of Sittwe.
The area is crucial to China's most strategic investment in Myanmar: twin pipelines that will stretch from Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal to China's energy-hungry western provinces, bringing oil and natural gas to one of China's most undeveloped regions.
"China and Myanmar are friendly neighbors," said Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei when asked on Friday about possible threats to the pipeline projects. "We hope that Myanmar can remain stable."
Rohingyas are officially stateless. Buddhist-majority Myanmar's government regards the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.
It was unclear what set off the latest arson and killing that started on Sunday. In June, tension flared after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that was blamed on Muslims, but there was no obvious spark this time.
Rights groups such as Amnesty International have called on Myanmar to amend or repeal a 1982 citizenship law to end the Rohingyas' stateless condition.
In Washington, the State Department has urged Myanmar to grant full humanitarian access to the affected areas, launch a dialogue aimed at reconciliation, and open investigations into the violence.
(Reporting by Reuters staff reporters; Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)