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Exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh tops quarter-million: UN

270,000 Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine State since violence erupted on 25 August, UN refugee agency says
Rohingya refugees after crossing border into Bangladesh at Cox's Bazar on Friday (Reuters)

About 270,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past two weeks, the UN refugee agency said on Friday, announcing a dramatic jump in numbers fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar's Rakhine State.

A rights group said satellite images showed about 450 buildings had been burned in a Myanmar border town largely inhabited by Rohingya, as part of what the Muslim minority refugees say is a concerted effort to expel them.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the estimated number of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh since violence erupted in Myanmar on 25 August had risen from 164,000 on Thursday after aid workers found big groups in border areas.

"We have identified more people in different areas that we were not aware of," said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, adding that the number was an estimate and there could be some double-counting."The numbers are so alarming - it really means that we have to step up our response and that the situation in Myanmar has to be addressed urgently."

The latest flight of Rohingya began two weeks ago after Rohingya insurgents attacked security force posts in Myanmar's Rakhine. That triggered an army counteroffensive in which at least 400 people were killed.

The United States, a main backer of Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government that came to power in Myanmar last year, said it saw shortcomings on the part of Myanmar security forces and the government in dealing with the situation.

Patrick Murphy, US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Washington was calling in talks with Myanmar's military and civilian leaders for urgent restoration of access to Rakhine State for humanitarian assistance and journalists.

He said the security forces must respond responsibly to attacks.

Rights groups held a briefing for UN Security Council diplomats on Friday on the Myanmar violence. Russia and China did not send any diplomats, according to people at the meeting. Myanmar has said it is was counting on China and Russia to protect it from any Security Council censure.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke with Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi by phone on Wednesday and reiterated his concern about the situation in Rakhine State, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told Reuters on Friday.

The wave of refugees, many sick or wounded, has strained the resources of aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands displaced by previous waves of violence in Myanmar.

Many have no shelter, and aid agencies are racing to provide clean water, sanitation and food.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against "terrorists" it blames for burning homes and civilian deaths.

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It says about 30,000 non-Muslims have been displaced.

The 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar have long complained of persecution. They are denied citizenship and regarded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

There is limited access to the north of Rakhine State and few if any independent witnesses, raising fears that a humanitarian crisis may be unfolding among Rohingya still there.

Bangladesh has proposed creating "safe zones" run by aid groups for Rohingya in Myanmar, but it would seem the plan is unlikely to be accepted there.

Human Rights Watch said satellite images taken last Saturday showed hundreds of burned buildings in Maungdaw, a district capital in Rakhine State, in areas primarily inhabited by Rohingya.

"If safety cannot even be found in area capitals, then no place may be safe," said Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director.

A Myanmar journalist in the north of the state said he had reports from residents of an area called Rathedaung that six villages there had been torched and that there had also been shooting in the area.

Critics have accused Suu Kyi of not speaking out for the Rohingya and some have called for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked.

Protests against the treatment of the Rohingya have been held in several countries, including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. Others were held outside Myanmar's embassies in Tokyo and Manila.

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