Communal violence is grinding on in western Myanmar six weeks after the government declared a state of emergency there, and Muslim Rohingyas are increasingly being hit with targeted attacks that have included killings, rape and physical abuse, Amnesty International said.
A government spokesman for coastal Rakhine state, which was engulfed by a wave of bloody unrest in June, called the allegations made Friday groundless and biased. Amnesty's claims are "totally opposite of what is happening on the ground," spokesman Win Myaing said, adding that the region was calm.
Also Friday, the new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar announced a donation of $3 million in food aid to northern areas of the country affected by fighting between government troops and ethnic militias.
Amnesty International accused both security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists of carrying out new attacks against Rohingyas, who are seen as foreigners by the ethnic majority and denied citizenship by the government because it considers them illegal settlers from neighboring Bangladesh.
After a series of isolated killings starting in late May that left victims on both sides, bloody skirmishes quickly spread across much of Myanmar's coastal Rakhine state. The government declared a state of emergency June 10, deploying troops to quell the unrest and protect both mosques and monasteries. Authorities said at least 78 people were killed and thousands of homes were burned down or destroyed - with the damage roughly split evenly between Buddhists and Muslims.
The worst of the violence subsided late last month, but communal violence has ground on. Now, Amnesty said, it is being directed mostly at the Rohingya population.
Attacks over the last six weeks have been "primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingyas specifically the targets and victims," Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty, told The Associated Press. "Some of this is by the security forces' own hands, some by Rakhine Buddhists with the security forces turning a blind eye in some cases."
The group also said security forces, including the police and the army, had conducted massive sweeps and detained hundreds of Rohingyas who are being held "incommunicado."
"While the restoration of order, security, and the protection of human rights is necessary, most arrests appear to have been arbitrary and discriminatory, violating the rights to liberty and to freedom from discrimination on grounds of religion," Amnesty said in a statement.
Win Myaing, the government spokesman, said security forces had arrested at least 100 Muslims in the northern Rakhine state town of Maungdaw, but he said the arrests were not discriminatory. Muslims account for more than 95 percent of the population in the town, he said, and it is natural they would comprise most of the arrests there.
Iran urged the United Nations to take action to protect the Rohingyas.
"We believe that ethnic and religious cleansing against Muslims under whatever pretext is unjustifiable and inexcusable under international law, and the United Nations must take urgent measures" to protect the Rohingyas by calling on Myanmar's government to end its "crackdown," Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, said in a letter Friday to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Myanmar has long faced tension with many of its ethnic minorities, who usually live in border regions. Although the new government has concluded cease-fires with many, there are still unresolved issues, and armed combat continues between the government and the Kachin minority in the north.
Ambassador Derek Mitchell announced at the U.S. Embassy Friday that the $3 million food aid donation for displaced people in Shan and Kachin states in northern Myanmar would be delivered through the U.N. World Food Program.
It was Mitchell's first press briefing since he took his post earlier this month as the first U.S ambassador to Myanmar in two decades. Washington restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar and eased sanctions in response to reforms initiated after the long-ruling military ceded power last year.
The U.S. already had announced earlier this month another $3 million aid package for humanitarian needs in Rakhine and Kachin states and disaster risk reduction.
The violence in Rakhine constituted some of the country's deadliest sectarian bloodshed in years and raised international concerns about the Rohingyas' fate inside Myanmar.
Many people in Myanmar don't recognize Rohingya as legitimate settlers, though those of Bengali heritage who came in the 19th century, when Myanmar was under British rule and called Burma, are regarded as full citizens. Those who entered after Myanmar became independent in 1948 are considered illegal immigrants.
Bangladesh, for its part, also denies the Rohingya citizenship, arguing that they have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognized as citizens there instead.
The U.N. estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar today. Thousands attempt to flee every year to Bangladesh, Malaysia and elsewhere in the region to escape a life of abuse that rights groups say includes forced labor, violence against women and restrictions on movement, marriage and reproduction.
Amnesty called on Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as citizens.
"Under international human rights law and standards, no one may be left or rendered stateless," Zawacki said. "For too long Myanmar's human rights record has been marred by the continued denial of citizenship for Rohingyas and a host of discriminatory practices against them."
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar.