Twelve people have died in Myanmar's Rakhine state in recent clashes between armed men and troops, state media reported Wednesday, in a growing challenge for the country's new democratically elected government.
Four soldiers and one attacker were killed on Tuesday when hundreds of men wielding pistols and swords attacked troops in Pyaungpit, a village near the town of Maungdaw.
Troops also discovered seven dead after fighting in the nearby village of Taung Paing Nyar.
‘After the incident, troops found seven dead bodies,’ the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported.
‘Swords and sticks were found with the bodies.’
The military has been scouring the region, not far from the border with Bangladesh, after nine police officers were killed on Sunday in coordinated attacks on three border posts.
Most people in the impoverished area are Muslim Rohingya, a stateless minority Buddhist whom nationalists vilify as illegal immigrants even though many trace their lineage in Buddhist-majority Myanmar back generations.
The recent unrest has raised the spectre of a repeat of 2012, when violence in Rakhine left more than 100 people dead and drove tens of thousands of Rohingya into displacement camps.
Hundreds of schools have been closed in Maungdaw and the surrounding area, a curfew is in force and teachers and government workers have been heading south to Rakhine's state capital Sittwe.
Escalating violence in the region poses a major challenge for the country's new democratic leadership.
For years the Rohingya have faced severe restrictions on their movements and access to basic services, with rights groups calling them one of the world's most persecuted peoples.
Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is facing international pressure to reach a solution for the Rohingya, whose plight has tarnished the country's major democratic gains.
She recently appointed a commission, headed by former UN chief Kofi Annan, to find ways to heal wounds in the bitterly divided and poor state.
Four suspects behind Sunday's border attacks -- including two who were captured on Tuesday --are being held by law enforcement, according to state media.
Authorities have released few details about the attackers or their motives, with some blaming the Rohingya and others pointing the finger at Bangladeshi groups.
The region has simmered with tension since the 2012 unrest left the state effectively divided along religious lines.
A total of 29 people have died in the recent clashes, according to state media, police and government sources, including troops, attackers and the border guards killed in Sunday's raids.
Rumours of killings and mass arrests around Maungdaw have spread like wildfire on social media, stoking fear. But details have proved difficult to confirm in the remote and tightly controlled area.
Local residents told AFP they were too scared to leave their houses as troops patrolled the streets.
Activists have said the search for the attackers is being used as a pretext for a crackdown on the Rohingya.
The UN's special advisor on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, urged troops and residents to exercise restraint at what he termed a ‘delicate juncture’ for the state.
He also called on civilians to ‘not be provoked into any kind of response by targeting other communities or religious groups’.
The European Union also called for an investigation to be carried out ‘in line with the rule of law’.
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