US warns Myanmar against civilian attacks as 17 drown fleeing violence

Cox's Bazar (Bangladesh) (AFP) - The United States has told Myanmar its security forces must refrain from attacking civilians and aid workers after days of violence forced thousands to seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh, with 17 found drowned Thursday.

At least 18,500 Rohingya have fled their homes following attacks by militants on August 25 in Rakhine State and a crackdown by security forces who have torched villages and targeted civilians, according to witness accounts.

Officials in Bangladesh say growing numbers of Rohingya are trying to cross the Naf river which divides the two countries, in rickety boats that are ill-equipped for the rough waters as they become increasingly desperate to escape.

On Thursday, Bangladesh coastguards found the bodies of 17 Rohingya, many of them children, who drowned when their boats capsized as they attempted to flee.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, later issued a statement chastising Myanmar's security forces.

"As Burmese security forces act to prevent further violence, they have a responsibility to adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers and ensuring assistance reaches those in need," Haley said.

Photographs from the scene showed the bodies of several small children lined up on the ground, covered with sheets.

One survivor told AFP the small, overcrowded boat he was travelling on had been tipped over by huge waves near where the Naf river opens out into the sea.

"Nobody knew how to navigate the sea waters. When huge waves tilted the boat, we panicked," Shah Karim said.

On Wednesday, the bodies of two Rohingya women and two children also washed up in Bangladesh after their boat capsized.

- 'Grave concern' -

The Naf river is narrow in some places, but the Rohingya are increasingly crossing where the river is wider, or even venturing out to sea, after Bangladeshi authorities intensified border patrols.

Bangladesh is already home to an estimated 400,000 Rohingya, a mainly Muslim stateless minority that rights groups say has long faced persecution in Myanmar.

Most live in squalid and increasingly overcrowded camps in the coastal area of Cox's Bazar, and Dhaka has made clear it wants no more to come.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday asked the US to put pressure on Myanmar to stem the flow.

"We have given shelter to a huge number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on humanitarian grounds and it's a big problem for us," she said, according to the state-run BSS news agency.

The latest clashes in Myanmar began last Friday when Rohingya militants staged deadly attacks on police posts, prompting raids on the community and searches by troops and police.

The violence left at least 110 people dead, including 11 state officials.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and other tribal groups are also among the dead and displaced after allegedly being targeted by Rohingya militants.

An estimated 6,000 Rohingya are massed on the border, having fled villages in Myanmar that they say were set on fire by police, troops and Buddhist mobs.

UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee expressed alarm Thursday about a worsening cycle of violence in the area that she said was "of grave concern" and "must be broken urgently".

"If human rights concerns are not properly addressed, and if people remain politically and economically marginalized, then northern Rakhine may provide fertile ground for radicalization, with people becoming increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by extremists," she said.

- Bangladesh under pressure -

Bangladesh is under intense international pressure to allow the fleeing Rohingya to cross into its territory, but it has pushed a number of them back, in what rights groups say is a contravention of its international obligations.

On Thursday, a Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) commander told AFP that 71 newly arrived Rohingya had been arrested for entering the country illegally and told to go back, though not forced to return.

"The police arrested 71 Rohingya from inside Bangladesh and later on handed them to us," said Manzurul Hassan Khan.

"We did not push them back, rather we told them... you should go back to your territory," added Khan, who said there was a "humanitarian crisis" developing along the border.

Media access to Rakhine is restricted, but on Wednesday an AFP reporter on a government-led visit to the worst-hit section of the state saw plumes of smoke billowing from several burning villages.

The UN Security Council met behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss the violence but there was no formal statement on the crisis.