By Wa Lone and Shoon Naing
YANGON (Reuters) - Up to eight villages were burned down on Friday in a part of northwest Myanmar where large numbers of Muslim Rohingya had been sheltering from a wave of violence engulfing the area, a witness and three sources briefed on the matter told Reuters.
The fires were blazing in the ethnically mixed Rathedaung township, where populations of Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists live side by side.
"Today around 4 p.m., I saw the smoke coming from where the villages were burning ...I saw it from the Chin village where I am staying now," said a villager from the area contacted by Reuters by phone.
It was unclear who set fire to the villages. Independent journalists are not allowed into the area, where Myanmar says its security forces are carrying out clearance operations to defend against "extremist terrorists".
Rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya say the army and Rakhine vigilantes have unleashed a campaign of arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population.
The burning of more villages is likely to fuel an exodus of Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. Nearly 270,000 have fled in less than two weeks, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday her government was doing its best to protect everyone, but she has drawn criticism from around the world for failing to speak out about the violence and the Muslim minority, including calls to revoke her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
HIDING IN WOODS
Rathedaung, the site of the latest fires, is the furthest Rohingya-inhabited area from the border with Bangladesh. Humanitarian workers had been concerned that a large number of the Muslims had been trapped there.
The blazes were confirmed by sources including two monitors with a network of informants on the ground, and a local journalist based in the nearby town of Buthidaung.
They said that among the torched villages were the hamlets of Ah Htet Nan Yar and Auk Nan Yar, some 65 km (40 miles) north of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state. One source said a camp for internally displaced people in the area also went up in flames.
One of the sources said 300 to 400 Rohingya who had escaped other burnings had been sheltering at Ah Htet Nan Yar until the day before the fire broke out. They had escaped before it started, the source said, quoting an eyewitness.
The villagers were now hiding in the forest or attempting a perilous, days-long journey by foot in the monsoon rain toward the Maungdaw region and further west to the River Naf separating Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The latest flight of Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar began two weeks ago after Rohingya insurgents attacked several police posts in Rakhine. That triggered an army counter-offensive in which at least 400 people were killed.
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Wa Lone and Shoon Naing; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)