Rohingya may have entered Bangladesh in recent Myanmar clashes, refugee official says

FILE PHOTO: Heatwave affects rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar

By Sudipto Ganguly and Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) - Escalating violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state in recent months may have spurred some Rohingya Muslims to cross into Bangladesh, a key refugee official said, although Dhaka insists it cannot accept more refugees from its war-torn neighbour.

Rohingya have faced persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for decades, with large numbers fleeing to Bangladesh from Rakhine in 2017, following a military-led crackdown on the minority community.

Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, the Bangladesh official tasked with refugee relief and repatriation, said his office had received reports of Rohingya crossing over to swell the figure of nearly a million housed in refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar area.

"Some people have managed to enter Bangladesh in various ways and have taken refuge in different places," Rahman, who is based in the southeastern coastal region, told Reuters. "I believe some people are being allowed to enter unofficially."

Fighting has flared in Rakhine after a ceasefire between the Arakan Army (AA), one of Myanmar's most powerful ethnic armies, and the ruling junta broke down late last year.

Spokesmen for the AA and the junta did not respond to telephone calls from Reuters to seek comment.

The AA has captured nine key towns in the coastal province and pursued its offensive to take more territory, in a nationwide rebel onslaught that has left the junta at its weakest since taking power in a 2021 coup.

In May, the AA said it had taken control of Buthidaung town, which had a large Rohingya population, amid accusations it had targeted members of the Muslim-minority community during the offensive. The rebel group denies the allegations.

On Sunday, the AA warned residents of Maungdaw, a town west of Buthidaung that is home primarily to Rohingya, to leave ahead of a planned offensive on the settlement.

'HELPLESS SITUATION'

But with exit routes blocked, several residents, a Rohingya leader and the United Nations human rights chief have said that Maungdaw residents have nowhere to flee.

About 70,000 Rohingya are feared trapped in the area.

Rahman said he had received messages from Rohingya that the AA offensive could lead to more displacement in Maungdaw, which touches the border with Bangladesh.

"I am receiving letters ... from organisations, especially the UNHCR, about their helpless situation, how they are stranded and that they want to come to Bangladesh, and they need protection," he said, referring to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Bangladesh's foreign and interior ministries did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

There was no change in policy on the Rohingya, however, a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, a Maungdaw resident who sought anonymity told Reuters that some townspeople had moved to nearby villages for fear of air strikes and artillery barrages as the AA edged nearer, with some injuries from artillery shelling.

(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly, Ruma Paul and Reuters staff; Editing by Devjyot Ghoshal and Clarence Fernandez)