BANGKOK (AP) — A leading international rights group on Sunday accused Myanmar security forces of supporting some of the brutal anti-Muslim violence last month that forced 35,000 people from torched homes. The government rejected the allegations, which came one day before President Barack Obama's visit to the Southeast Asian nation after a year and a half of unprecedented democratic reforms there.
Human Rights Watch said soldiers in some parts of western Rakhine state also tried to stop Buddhist attacks and protect Muslim civilians, known as Rohingya. But the group said the government needs to do much more to protect the stateless minority, who are denied citizenship because they are considered foreigners from Bangladesh.
The New York-based rights group also released new satellite imagery detailing the extensive destruction of several Muslim areas, including a village attacked by Buddhist mobs armed with spears and bows and arrows where adults were beheaded and women and children killed.
Violence in June, and again in late October, has killed around 200 people on both sides and displaced more than 110,000 people, the vast majority of them Muslims.
"The satellite images and eyewitness accounts reveal that local mobs, at times with official support, sought to finish the job of removing Rohingya from these areas," Human Rights Watch's Asia director, Brad Adams, said in a statement.
"The central government's failure to take serious action to ensure accountability for the June violence fostered impunity, and makes it responsible for later attacks not only when security forces were directly involved, but also when they weren't," he said. "This is crunch time because Burma's failure to contain sectarian violence ... calls into question the Burmese government's stated goal of becoming a rights-respecting, multi-ethnic state."
Myanmar is also known as Burma.
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myaing said he strongly rejected charges that local authorities and security forces supported the violence in October.
"We tried our utmost to resolve the problems with fairness in the interest of the welfare of both communities," Win Myaing told The Associated Press. "Both sides accused us of supporting either side, but we tried our best to protect both communities. We stationed more security to protect the mosques."
The Associated Press has also interviewed victims in Rakhine state who accused security forces of taking part in the violence or of doing little to stop it, but it was not possible to verify the claims.
On Friday, the United Nations announced it had received a letter from Myanmar President Thein Sein pledging to consider new rights for the Rohingya for the first time and condemning the "senseless violence" that has battered Rakhine state. But the letter stopped short of a full commitment that citizenship and other new freedoms would be granted, and gave no timeline.
The White House says Obama will press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy after a half-century of military rule that ended last year.
The U.N. has called the Rohingya — who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar — among the most persecuted people on Earth.
Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for generations. The government considers them to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but Bangladesh also rejects them, rendering them stateless.
The satellite images released by Human Rights Watch showed before and after scenes of burned areas in Pauktaw, Mrauk-U and Myebon townships. It had earlier released similar images of Kyaukphyu township, where ethnic Kaman Muslims were also forced to flee, indicating the conflict has widened.
While Muslim zones in those areas were destroyed, one village in Mrauk-U called Yan Thei was almost 100 percent destroyed.
Human Rights Watch cited witnesses as saying that mobs of Buddhist Rakhine "armed with swords, spears, homemade guns, bows and arrows, and other weapons descended on the village on Oct. 23, and fighting ensued."
"The Rohingya were ultimately surrounded and overwhelmed, and survivors fled by land to an area outside the village," the rights group said. "Gruesome casualties were sustained on both sides, including beheadings and killings of women and children."
According to the report, displaced Rohingya and Kaman Muslims also said some state security forces fired shots in the air to fend off mobs and provided water and food to them on their offshore boats after they were initially denied permission to come ashore in the regional capital, Sittwe. Authorities were concerned their arrival could overwhelm already packed displacement camps.
"But these instances of protection were offset by violence committed against the Rohingya and Kaman by other groups of security forces," the rights group said.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar.