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Myanmar ethnic violence death toll increases to 50: state media

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar's state media reported Saturday that the death toll from recent communal violence in the west has increased to 50, even though the unrest was largely quelled several days ago.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper also said that 54 other people were injured, 78 riots broke out and 2,230 houses and buildings were destroyed by fire in the 18 days through to Thursday. It also said, without elaborating, that there were only two riots Thursday, which the authorities were able to handle peacefully.

The violence was a result of long-standing tensions in Rakhine State between the ethnic Rakhine community and Rohingya residents, whom many Rakhines regard as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya say they are also longtime settlers in the region. The Rakhine are Buddhist while Rohingya are Muslim, which had led to fears the localized conflict could spread along religious lines and into other parts of Myanmar.

On Thursday, Rakhine state authorities had given the death toll as 29, but that was only for the period June 8 — when there was mass rioting and arson in the state's Maungdaw and Buthidaung township — through Wednesday. Although Saturday's newspaper account did not give a breakdown for the new figure of 50 dead, it may include the June 3 lynching deaths of 10 Muslims by a Rakhine mob of 300, and an earlier incident said to have sparked the lynching — the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslims.

Thursday's figures had been broken down by ethnic group, and showed that both sides suffered roughly equally, in terms of deaths, injuries and property damage. Houses of worship of both communities were also burned.

During the unrest, army troops were sent to help quell the violence and a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed. When the situation spread to Sittwe, a seaport and the area's main urban center, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency, giving the military full administrative powers to keep order. The security measures remain in effect.

Despite the apparent cessation of violence, the area still faces a humanitarian crisis because of the number of displaced people. On Thursday, Rakhine state authorities said monasteries and schools were sheltering 31,884 displaced people. An unknown number of Rohingya have tried to flee to Bangladesh, but the authorities there have barred their entry.

The New Light of Myanmar reported that private donors are assisting in relief efforts.

Sittwe on Saturday was calm for the fourth straight day, though many shops and markets remained closed and people were still fearful of further arson attacks, according to Sittwe residents contacted by phone.

“Life is not back to normal yet. It will take some time to ease our fears and live normal lives. We are afraid that some Muslims might come up the shore at night and burn the Rakhine houses,” said Ohn May, a Sittwe resident.

She said the main market remains closed, though banks have been open for limited hours since Thursday.

Saturday's New Light of Myanmar said that 2,230 houses and buildings were destroyed by fire, less than the 2,528 houses reported Thursday by Rakhine state authorities.

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