Taliban-trained militants carried out Myanmar border raids: presidency

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Terrified residents flee northern Myanmar as crackdown widens

Maungdaw (Myanmar) (AFP) - A Pakistani Taliban-trained militant leader was behind deadly attacks in the north of Myanmar's Rakhine state that have sparked a military crackdown and sent thousands of terrified residents fleeing the area, Myanmar's president said Friday.

A little-known group called the Aqa Mul Mujahidin carried out the border post raids on Sunday that left nine policemen dead, the presidency said in a statement, linking it to a Rohingya militant outfit called the RSO experts have long considered defunct.

Its leader spent six months training with the Taliban in Pakistan and received funding from unspecified organisations in the Middle East, the statement added.

"The leader of the group is Hafiz Tohar, 45, from Kyauk Pyin Seik village, in Maungdaw township," said the statement, according to an English translation of the name from Burmese.

"He studied with the Taliban for six months in Pakistan."

Troops have poured into restive northern Rakhine since Sunday's raids, locking down an area where most residents are from Myanmar's persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority.

At least 26 civilians have died in the ensuing skirmishes -- rights groups say the army has been gunning down unarmed Rohingya on the streets, but the army says troops have been defending themselves against attackers.

Details of the killings and the ensuing lockdown by the military have proved difficult to confirm on the remote and tightly controlled area.

A spokesman purporting to represent the RSO has vigorously denied any links to the border raids in a statement sent to AFP.

- Hundreds of armed men -

The violence has raised the spectre of sectarian unrest in 2012 that ripped the impoverished state apart, leaving more than 100 dead and driving tens of thousands of Rohingya into squalid displacement camps.

Families have been streaming out of Maungdaw on foot, their worldly possessions stuffed into carrier bags and plastic buckets or strapped to the front of bicycle rickshaws.

Around 180 teachers, workers and residents were also airlifted out of the region on Thursday, while hundreds of government staff have poured into the state capital Sittwe.

AFP spoke to witnesses on Friday in Warpaik, a village close to where the first border post was raided and where the military said they discovered flags and scarves bearing the RSO logo the previous day.

One elderly resident, who asked not to be named for her safety, described being set upon by hundreds of armed men: "About 500 or 600 people attacked in three places," she said.

"About 40 of us ran up a nearby hill with the children. We got hurt because we slipped and fell down as we ran," she said, showing injuries on her foot.

"They were shooting with guns. They only ran away when soldiers arrived. If soldiers hadn't come, we would have all been killed."

- 'Jihad videos' -

She identified the attackers from videos that have been circulating on social media that appear to show a group of armed Rohingya men calling for Muslims around the world to rise up in jihad in support of their cause.

The three unverified videos, all shot in what appear to be rice fields and bamboo jungles similar to the landscapes along the Myanmar and Bangladesh border, have sparked concern that some from the hitherto largely peaceful group may be becoming radicalised.

The Rohingya's plight has long been a rallying call for international jihadist organisations including the Islamic State group and Pakistan's Taliban, but there has been little evidence that jihadist ideology has taken root among them.

"The videos appear to be entirely authentic," said Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS-Jane's, pointing out the spokesman was using the Rohingya's Chittagong dialect of Bengali and carrying weapons like those authorities say were used in the border guard raids.

"The footage shows what appear to be a rabble of typical Rohingya youths -- poorly dressed, ill-equipped and apparently untrained."

An aide of Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, did not confirm whether the videos were real, but said the government "doesn't feel worried" about it.

The violence in Rakhine has posed a challenge to her newly elected government, which took power in March from a military junta that ruled the country for 50 years.

Facing international criticism for not doing more to help the Rohingya, she recently appointed a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan to investigate Rakhine's troubles.