Myanmar's Rakhine rebels launch offensive on police stations amid surge in violence
Ethnic Rakhine rebels carried out pre-dawn attacks on four police stations near the Bangladesh border in a strike confirmed Friday by both the rebel group and Myanmar's army, with the militants claiming to have killed seven and taken 14 "prisoners of war" as operations ramped up. Myanmar's western state of Rakhine has seen a surge in violence in recent weeks between rebels from the Arakan Army (AA) and security forces, displacing thousands.
It has added a new dimension to the violence in an area already scored by deep ethnic and religious enmity, which saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims forced over the border by a bloody army crackdown in 2017. The AA is calling for greater autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population in what is one of the country's poorest states. Friday morning's attacks took place in Buthidaung township in the north of Rakhine state, army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told AFP.
"We can confirm that the attack on the four police stations was by the AA," he said, adding that the army immediately sent a support team and that fighting continued into the afternoon. The AA told AFP that it had carried out the raids, blaming the military for using the police stations as a base from which to fire heavy artillery. "The army brought the police into the war two weeks ago," AA spokesman Khine Thukha said by phone, adding that the group had been under fire the whole day from army helicopters.
"Seven enemy combatants were killed. When we seized the posts, they surrendered and we took 14 prisoners of war," he said, adding that two AA fighters had also been killed in the clashes. The military was unable to give any information about casualty numbers. The UN's humanitarian agency said Thursday it was concerned for the estimated 2,500 people currently displaced, many of whom are sheltering in local monasteries. The AA was sidelined by an unexpected temporary ceasefire declared unilaterally by Myanmar's military two weeks ago.
The army vowed to stop fighting for four months against a number of armed groups in Kachin and Shan states on the other side of the country. Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi made the peace process a priority when her party swept to power in landmark 2015 elections. Some two dozen conflicts continue to fester around the country's border areas, many dating back to independence 70 years ago.
The AA has said the army is using the truce elsewhere to focus efforts on Rakhine. But observers say no major troop redeployments have yet taken place. The escalation of violence comes amid a series of unclaimed attacks and murders in recent weeks in northern Rakhine. Unknown assailants murdered a policeman, while two ethnic Rakhine were found with their throats slit, prompting the army to launch localised "clearance operations".
(With inputs from agencies.)
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