YANGON (Reuters) - Security forces raced to contain deadly violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Tuesday, police said, after mobs torched Muslim homes and Buddhist villagers were attacked in a third day of unrest in a region plagued by intractable sectarian tensions.
A Muslim woman was slashed to death as Buddhist gangs attacked three villages around Thandwe township, testing police and soldiers deployed on Sunday to disperse crowds that had set homes on fire and surrounded a mosque.
The woman was killed in her village and four ethnic Rakhine Buddhists were being treated in hospital after being attacked on a rural road, said a police inspector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Violence has taken place today in three villages. One is still on fire and being put out," he said by telephone.
The violence is the first flare-up in three months in the coastal state, the flashpoint of the communal unrest that has dogged Myanmar's reformist, quasi-civilian government since June last year.
President Thein Sein on Tuesday made his first visit to Rakhine since taking office and urged the public not to incite violence.
"Just military and police control is not enough. These burnings, killings and violence will cease only when you yourselves play a part in controlling this," Thein Sein told a meeting of local elders in the state's Kyauktaw township.
The former general, lauded internationally for his liberal reforms, has struggled to maintain order as deep-rooted tensions that were largely contained under the army's strict rule boil over in different parts of the country.
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since June last year have killed at least 237 people in Myanmar and 192 of those deaths were in Rakhine state, where Rohingya Muslims, most of whom are stateless, bore the brunt of the attacks.
FEAR AND LAWLESSNESS
Security forces successfully cleared a mob of about 1,000 Buddhists earlier on Tuesday, another police official said, adding that it was possible the attacks that followed were orchestrated by the same people.
Muslims in Thandwe said they were terrified of an escalation.
"Like in Korean movies, they have swords and sticks," said Muslim resident Tin Win. "There's no law and order in this town. We're in a serious situation, we're really worried."
As in previous bouts of unrest, the trigger appeared to be a minor disagreement. A Buddhist motorcycle rider had an argument late on Saturday with a local Muslim politician, Kyaw Zan Hla.
Police confirmed Kyaw Zan Hla was arrested on Monday for "insulting religion", allegations he had earlier denied.
"In the end, they're going to sentence him to prison," said a family member who answered Kyaw Zan Hla's cellphone.
The violence has taken place in other parts of Myanmar and added momentum to a Buddhist nationalist movement known by the numerals "969", which symbolize attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood.
The movement officially aims to isolate Muslims, promoting a boycott of their businesses, but its followers have responded with measures far more extreme.
Wint Zarni Tun, a 20-year-old Muslim student, said the supporters of the movement in Thandwe had been playing 969 songs in front of the town hall for the past month.
In a report released on Tuesday, the International Crisis Group urged the government to tackle the root causes of the tension and not rely on security measures alone.
"The government and society at large must also do more to combat extremist rhetoric," said Jim Della-Giacoma, its Asia program director.
"At a moment of historic reform and opening, Myanmar cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry... otherwise, this issue could come to define the new Myanmar."
(Reporting by Aye Win Myint in Kyauktaw, Soe Zeya Tun and Min Zayar Oo in Yangon; Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Martin Petty)