Myanmar pursuing 'ethnic cleansing' of Rohingya: UN official

Teknaf (Bangladesh) (AFP) - Myanmar is engaged in "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingya Muslims, a UN official has said, as reports emerged Friday of troops shooting at villagers as they tried to flee.

Thousands of desperate people have pushed over the border into Bangladesh in the last few days, bringing with them horrifying stories of gang rape, torture and the systematic killing of their ethnic group.

John McKissick, head of the United Nations refugee agency in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox's Bazar, said troops in Myanmar were "killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river" into Bangladesh.

The UN says up to 30,000 Rohingya, a stateless ethnic group, have abandoned their homes in Myanmar, desperate to escape the soldiers that have poured into the strip of land where they live near the Bangladesh border.

Dhaka says thousands are massed on the border, but has refused urgent international appeals to let them in, instead calling on Myanmar to do more to stop people fleeing.

"It's very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar," McKissick said.

Vivian Tan, a press officer for the UN agency, said McKissick was "recounting what different sources, including new arrivals, have told him about the conditions they fled" and added the reports were "very worrying".

Farmer Deen Mohammad was among the thousands who evaded stiffened border patrols, sneaking into the Bangladeshi border town of Teknaf four days ago with his wife, two of their children and three other families.

"They (Myanmar's military) took my two boys, aged nine and 12 when they entered my village. I don't know what happened to them," Mohammad, 50, told AFP.

"They took women in rooms and then locked them from inside. Up to 50 women and girls of our village were tortured and raped."

Mohammad said houses in his village were burned, echoing similar testimony from other recent arrivals.

One Rohingya man, who asked not to be named, told AFP in Myanmar that troops had stormed into a neighbouring village early Friday morning and fired indiscriminately on residents as they tried to escape.

- Children facing death -

Amnesty International said the Myanmar army was carrying out "collective punishment" of the Rohingya, a one million-strong population reviled across Myanmar as illegal immigrants, for attacks last month on police posts.

"The response of the army to attacks on security forces six weeks ago went far beyond what was necessary and proportional," said the group's South Asia director Champa Patel.

"Instead of investigating and arresting specific suspects, the army carried out operations amounting to collective punishment."

Myanmar's new civilian government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has rejected the allegations, and entry to Rakhine state is severely restricted, making it independent verification difficult.

Rights workers say hundreds of fleeing families have set up makeshift camps on the Myanmar side of the border as they wait for the chance to cross, with little access to food.

The UN has said around 150,000 vulnerable people have been without aid for more than a month, including around 3,000 children with severe malnutrition who are at risk of dying.

- 'Genocide' -

Penny Green, professor of law at Queen Mary University of London, said the latest developments were a "new chapter" in the persecution of the Rohingya, who face apartheid-like restrictions that limit access to jobs, education and healthcare.

"We sounded the alarm in 2015 that what we saw amounted to the early stages of a genocidal process," she said.

"We are concerned that these latest developments may represent a new chapter in the persecution of the Rohingya, and a potentially more deadly phase of genocide.

"The fact that it?s practically impossible to verify or confirm any of these reports underlines the intensity of Rakhine state?s isolation from international view."