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Myanmar leader, fighter exchange accusations amid rise in Rakhine violence

Thousands of panic-stricken Rohingya Muslims have fled the fresh tide of violence in Rakhine, with Myanmar’s leader and the armed group involved in clashes with government forces in the troubled state trading accusations of fueling the turmoil.

On Monday, Aung San Suu Kyi accused the so-called Rohingya fighters of burning down homes and using child soldiers amid the violence in Rakhine State, which is home to some 1.1 Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar’s State Counselor’s Office, the government department run by Suu Kyi, posted a flurry of statements on its Facebook account, including photos of civilians allegedly shot dead by militants.

“Terrorists have been fighting security forces by using children at the frontline (and) setting fire (to) minority-ethnic villages,” one of the statements read.

However, the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed group which claims to be defending the Muslim minority, rejected the allegations and accused the government of inciting violence.

“While raiding Rohingya villages, the Burmese (Myanmar) brutal military soldiers bring along with them groups of Rakhine (Buddhist) extremists to attack Rohingya villagers, loot Rohingyas’ properties and later burn down Rohingya houses,” the group’s Twitter account said on Monday.

At least 104 people have so far been killed in Rakhine amid clashes between Myanmar’s military and the armed group.

Renewed violence erupted on August 25, when dozens of police and border outposts in Rakhine came under attack by the so-called Rohingya fighters.

Since Friday, thousands of Rohingya Muslims as well as Buddhists have fled the violence-torn region.

Some 2,000 Muslims have managed to cross into Bangladesh, according to the latest figures given by the makeshift refugee camps on the Bangladeshi side of the border.

The Myanmar government has long been under scrutiny by the international community over its atrocities against the Rohingya, known by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority group in the world.”

Myanmar’s government denies full citizenship to Rohingya Muslims, branding them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Dhaka, in turn, perceives the desperate refugees as Myanmarese and harshly pushes them back. The Rohingya, however, track their ancestors many generations back in Myanmar.

On Sunday, Pope Francis deplored the “persecution” of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of the Myanmar government, whose military forces, along with Buddhist mobs, have unleashed a fresh wave of deadly crackdown against the minority group in troubled Rakhine State.

Speaking to a gathering of worshipers at Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, the head of the Roman Catholic Church expressed sorrow over “sad news about the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers” and prayed form them to receive “full rights.”

The pontiff further appealed for an end to violence against Rohingya Muslims and said, “I would like to express all of my closeness to them.”

The comments come days after a senior Vatican source said on condition of anonymity the Pope will “most likely” visit Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, which is hosting tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, before the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, also reacted to the latest bloodshed in Rakhine and severely condemned the massacre of Rohingya Muslims there.

Al-Azhar said in a statement that such crimes are against the values of all the religions, calling for international efforts to put an end to the crimes.

Also Sunday, the European Rohingya Council (ERC) expressed concern over the plight of Rohingyas and urged the global community to take urgent actions “for protection and safety in Rakhine state.”

The ERC warned that while many people, including women and children, currently take shelter in the jungle or risk crossing the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, the majority of the fleeing Rohingyas are stranded on the Myanmar-side of the Naf River as Bangladesh continues to tighten its border security and push them back.

The group noted that the recent wave of violence is aimed at undermining the newly-released final report by ex-UN Chief Kofi Annan’s Rakhine State Advisory Commission, which calls for swift measures to end Rohingya sufferings.