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June 26, 2017

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Myanmar sectarian violence survivors relive ordeals

SITTWE, Myanmar -- Muslim survivors of six days of sectarian violence in western Myanmar spoke on Sunday of fleeing bullets and burning homes to escape on fishing boats after an attack by once-peaceable Rakhine neighbors.

The United Nations said 22,587 people had now been displaced after unrest between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines claimed at least 67 lives in Rakhine State and tested the reformist mettle of the quasi-civilian government that replaced Myanmar's oppressive ruling junta last year.

"We were told to stay in our homes but then they were set on fire," said Ashra Banu, 33, a mother of four who fled the coastal town of Kyaukpyu after its Muslim quarter was razed on Oct. 25.

"When we ran out people were being shot at by Rakhines and police," she said. "We couldn't put out the fires. We just tried to run."

New York-based Human Rights Watch earlier released before-and-after satellite images showing the near total devastation of the Kyaukpyu's Muslim quarter.

Located about 120 km (75 miles) south of the Rakhine State capital Sittwe, Kyaukpyu is crucial to China's most strategic investment in Myanmar: twin pipelines that will carry oil and natural gas from the Bay of Bengal to China's energy-hungry western provinces.

No new clashes were reported on Sunday, but a Reuters journalist at Te Chaung camp near Sittwe witnessed a constant trickle of new arrivals, mainly from Kyaukpyu, where more than 811 buildings and houseboats were destroyed according to Human Rights Watch's analysis of satellite imagery.

The government estimates at least 3,000 homes have been destroyed across in Rakhine State since Oct. 21. Rights groups say the number of people killed is likely far higher than the official death toll.

"The Rakhines came to attack us with knives. They set fire to our homes, even though we have nothing there for them. I left in only the clothes I am wearing," wept a 63-year-old woman who said her name was Zomillah, as she sat on a crowded space in Te Chaung camp. "I can't go back."

Abdul Awal, 30, police stood by as Rakhines burned their homes. "The Rakhines beat us, and the police shot at us. We ran to the sea and they followed us, beating us and shooting at us," he said. "I have to start a new life now."

A Buddhist Rakhine in Kyaukpyu tells a different story. Contacted by telephone by Reuters, he said Rakhines and Muslims had fought each other with knives, swords, sticks and slingshots. Overwhelmed, the Muslims then "set fire to their own houses as a last resort and ran away," he said. The resident estimates 80 to 100 Muslim boats left Kyaukpyu that day.

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