PAUKTAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Boatloads of Muslims struggled to reach refugee camps and sought safety on islands and in coastal villages on Saturday as Myanmar tried to put out the fires of a week of sectarian unrest that has shaken its fragile democratic transition.
Dozens of rickety wooden vessels packed with the stateless Rohingya Muslims who fled clashes with Buddhists in western Rakhine state had reached land by Saturday after two days at sea, but nine boats were still unaccounted for, according to several Rohingya refugee sources reached by telephone.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Myanmar's reformist government to protect Muslims from "vicious" attacks, and released satellite images of the "near total destruction" of a once-thriving coastal community reduced to ashes around Kyaukpyu, an industrial zone important to Chinese energy interests.
The United Nations has warned that Myanmar's fledgling democracy could be "irreparably damaged" by a week of communal violence which has come five months after machete and arson attacks killed more than 80 people and displaced at least 75,000 in the same region.
No new clashes were reported on Saturday, a day after the Home Minister said the government was prepared to declare martial law and emergency rule in the region if violence escalated. A committee of lawmakers led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi called on Friday for security reinforcements and swift legal action against those behind fighting in which at least 67 people were killed.
The chaos suggests the quasi-civilian government is struggling to contain historic ethnic and religious tensions between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhines that were suppressed during five decades of military rule that ended last year.
Few Rohingyas were able to reach overstretched refugee camps, and some said boats were turned back by security forces when they tried to join other Rohingyas, said by a government official to be receiving food and water in the relative safety of the state capital Sittwe.
Myanmar's estimated 800,000 Rohingyas are officially stateless, and regarded by the government of the majority Buddhist country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, rather than one of its 135 official ethnic groups, as a result of which it denies them citizenship.
Bangladesh does not recognise them either, and the United Nations has referred to them as "virtually friendless".
A Rakhine government spokesman put the death toll at 112 as of Friday, but within hours, state media revised it to 67 killed, 95 wounded and nearly 3,000 houses destroyed from October 21 to 25.
DEATH TOLL "UNDERESTIMATED"
That toll could be far higher, said Human Rights Watch, citing "allegations from witnesses fleeing scenes of carnage and the government's well-documented history of underestimating figures that might lead to criticism of the state."
Buddhists searched on Saturday for bodies of ethnic Rakhines killed in the clashes and some villages in Paukthaw, where both Muslims and Buddhists had lived, were left abandoned.
Soldiers stood guard close to the burned-out homes that bore the scars of the latest chaos in a region where tensions between the groups have simmered for years.
"The bodies of 16 Rakhines were found in the sea. They had died during the attacks on Thursday. We're looking for more bodies," said Tun Mein Thein of the Wan Lark foundation, an organisation assisting Buddhist refugees. The information could not be independently verified.
Rohingyas refugee sources said many of those on boats had resisted efforts by security forces to move them to A-Ngu-Maw island, fearing retribution by Rakhine Buddhists.
Human Rights Watch said more than 811 buildings and houseboats were razed in Kyaukpyu, about 120 km (75 miles) south of Sittwe. Kyaukpyu is crucial to China's most strategic investment in Myanmar: twin pipelines that will carry oil and natural gas through the town on the Bay of Bengal to China's energy-hungry western provinces.
A boat carrying 120 Muslims from Kyaukpyu was on Thursday intercepted by Rakhines, who killed the men and raped the women, the advocacy group Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said in a statement, describing the attacks as "ethnic cleansing". This claim could not be verified.
"We have confirmed reports that hundreds of people have been killed and the government must be aware of that," said Tun Khin, the group's president.
Many of those expelled from Kyaukpyu are not Rohingya but Muslims from the officially recognized Kaman minority, said Chris Lewa, director of the Rohingya advocacy group, Arakan Project. "It's not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it's anti-Muslim," she said.
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 trigger this time.
(Reporting by Reuters staff reporters; Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)