Bangladeshi border guards have recovered two dozen bodies from the country's shore in the last two days, as tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims make desperate attempts to flee the worst violence involving the Myanmar minority in at least five years.
Around 27,400 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Friday, three United Nations sources said, after Rohingya insurgents wielding sticks, knives and crude bombs attacked police posts and an army base in Rakhine state, leading to clashes that have killed at least 117 people.
The Myanmar government says its security forces are carrying out clearance operations in northern Rakhine to defend the country against "extremist terrorists". Monitors say that fleeing Rohingya are reporting that the army and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes have unleashed a campaign of arson aimed at driving the Muslim population out.
Reuters reporters in Bangladesh on Thursday saw a huge fire across the Naf River on the Myanmar side of the border.
Many villages were also on fire near the major town of Maungdaw in Rakhine, where another Reuters reporter saw charred debris and smoke billowing from the forest.
The UN sources in Bangladesh said around 20,000 Rohingya were still stranded in no man's land between the two countries, with one predicting the figure could jump to 30,000 later on Thursday.
Myanmar has evacuated thousands of Buddhists from Rakhine since the start of the fighting that has mainly killed Rohingya insurgents but also security force personnel, according to the Myanmar government.
The treatment of about 1.1 million Rohingya in Myanmar is the biggest challenge facing national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been accused by Western critics of not speaking out for a minority that has long complained of persecution.
On Thursday, the bodies of 11 Rohingya children and nine women washed up on the Bangladesh side of the Naf after their boat overturned, said Ariful Islam, a commander with Bangladesh's border guards.
The bodies of two Rohingya women and two children were recovered on Wednesday after their boat was fired on by Myanmar's Border Guard Police, Islam said. A Rohingya leader in Bangladesh cited survivors saying both boats were overcrowded.
In the Bangladeshi border district of Cox's Bazar, makeshift camps for the displaced set up since similar violence last October were being expanded.
One of those arrivals, Mohammed Rashid, 45, wore a surgical dressing under his eye, which he said was the result of bullet splinters hitting him after the Myanmar army opened fire on a group of Rohingya.
He said about 100 people made their way to the border together, and that he saw explosions and people dying.
"We hid in the forest for two days and then we were stopped at the border, but we got through. We heard that the houses in our village have burned down," Rashid told Reuters at the camp.
Chris Lewa, of the Rohingya monitoring group the Arakan Project, said it appeared Myanmar security forces were trying to drive out a large proportion of the Rohingya population. She also said that ethnic Rakhine vigilantes were now "actively participating in the burning of villages."
"What we're hearing is burning, burning, burning," she said. "And it seems to be spreading from south to north."
Myanmar has said it has the right to defend itself from attack, adding that security personnel were told to protect innocent civilians.
The Myanmar army has said it was battling insurgents who continued to ambush government forces, blaming them for setting fires to the villages. Monitors say there have been few, if any, insurgent attacks reported since Friday's initial offensive.
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since October, when a similar but much smaller series of Rohingya attacks on security posts prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of rights abuses.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and regarded as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots that date back centuries. Bangladesh is also growing increasingly hostile to Rohingya, more than 400,000 of whom live in the poor South Asian country after fleeing Myanmar since the early 1990s.
Bangladesh on Wednesday pushed back 366 Rohingya trying to enter the country mainly by small wooden boats, though thousands of others have set up temporary camps along the porous land border between the countries, borders guards said.
The International Organization for Migration joined U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in appealing to Bangladesh to admit people caught on the border. Bangladesh has insisted it does not have the resources to care for them, though many have slipped in, mainly at night.
Aid workers operating in the area say contingency stocks of materials are low and the biggest problem facing relief workers is extreme overcrowding in the existing makeshift settlements.
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