SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar sent troops and naval vessels to the western state of Rakhine on Saturday after seven people died in the worst fighting in years between minority Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists.
A senior government official said hundreds of Rohingya had rioted on Friday in Buddhist communities and an overnight curfew had been imposed in Maungdaw Township.
It was not clear what had sparked the unrest but the western region has been tense for days after reports of the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman blamed on Muslims and the reprisal killing last Sunday of 10 Muslims.
Reuters reporters and local residents saw up to four planes carrying soldiers land at Sittwe airport on Saturday.
State TV said naval vessels had arrived in the area and were patrolling the river and sea off Maungdaw. Senior government officials including Defence Minister General Hla Min had been dispatched to oversee operations and help with relief work.
MRTV said seven people had died and 17 had been wounded in the unrest on Friday, and around 500 buildings had been destroyed in Maungdaw.
Hmu Zaw, the director of the President's Office, said on Facebook hundreds of Rohingya had attacked dozens of Buddhist villages in Maungdaw Township. Police had tried to provide protection, firing warning shots, he said, without noting any casualties. State media also said warning shots had been fired.
One source contacted by phone from Maungdaw said there had been trouble overnight despite the curfew, with Rohingya trying to attack Buddhist homes.
"It's just like a living hell. I wonder how long we will have to live like this?" said Mya Khin, a housewife.
On Saturday, Maungdaw and nearby villages were reported to be calm but the Arakan National Watch, a local independent Buddhist group, said there had been further violence and deaths overnight in villages near the border with Bangladesh.
The Rohingyas went on the rampage after prayers on Friday. They hurled rocks and torched houses and buildings, witnesses told Reuters by telephone.
The presents a challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government, which replaced a military junta last year and says it wants to forge unity among all groups in Myanmar, one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries.
Most Rohingya are stateless, recognised as citizens by neither Myanmar nor neighbouring Bangladesh. The U.N.'s refugee agency estimates there are about 800,000 of them in three districts of Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.
Resentment of Rohingya runs deep among Myanmar's predominantly Buddhist, ethnic Burman majority. The government and many Burmese refuse even to recognise them as "Rohingya", referring to them as "Bengalis".
Abu Tahay, chairman of the National Democratic Party for Development, a Rohingya political party, said the curfew in Maungdaw was necessary but it was being abused by the security forces to ransack Rohingya houses and round up suspects.
He claimed more than 100 Rohingya were missing in Maungdaw but people were frightened to speak out. "It's very dangerous for them. If anyone talks to the media, the authorities will take action. People are scared to speak," he said.
On Thursday, the government announced it had appointed a minister and police chief to head an investigation into "organised lawless and anarchic acts" in Rakhine state.
It took the unusual step of announcing the probe on the front page of official newspapers and removed from news websites references to Muslims as "kalar", a derogatory term for Muslims of South Asian descent in Myanmar.
In a statement in official newspapers on Saturday, the All Myanmar Islam Association condemned "the terrorising and destruction of lives and properties of innocent people" and called on Muslims across the country to live in peace.
Reporting by Soe Zeya Tun and Aye Win Myint in Sittwe, Aung Hla Tun in Yangon and Andrew R.C. Marshall in Bangkok; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Andrew Roche