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Homes burn, gunfire heard in Myanmar ethnic violence

SITTWE, Myanmar/DHAKA -- Gunshots rang out and residents fled blazing homes in western Myanmar on Tuesday as security forces struggled to contain deadly ethnic and religious violence that has killed at least a dozen people and forced thousands to flee.

The conflict pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state marks some of the worst sectarian unrest recorded in Myanmar in years. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency and warned that the spiraling violence could threaten the democratic reforms tentatively taking shape in Myanmar after half a century of military rule.

On Tuesday in the regional capital, Sittwe, police fired live rounds into the air to disperse Rohingyas who could be seen burning homes in one neighborhood. Hordes of people ran to escape the chaos.

“Smoke is billowing from many directions and we are scared,” said Ma Thein, an ethnic Rakhine resident in Sittwe, where dark smoke from numerous fires covered the skyline into the late afternoon. “The government should send in more security forces to protect both communities.”

Truckloads of security forces have been deployed in Sittwe for days, and much of the port city was reported calm, including its main road. But homes were burning in three or four districts that have yet to be pacified.

In one, police fired skyward to separate hundreds-strong mobs wielding sticks and stones; in another, soldiers helped move 1,000 Muslims by trucks to safer areas.

Ma Thein said that some people were running short of food and water, with banks, schools and markets closed. Some small shops opened early Tuesday to sell fish and vegetables early in the morning to residents who braved the tense streets.

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Myanmar policemen walk toward burning buildings in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where sectarian violence is ongoing, Tuesday, June 12. (AP)

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