YANGON (Reuters) - As many as 69 members of what Myanmar’s government has described as a Rohingya Muslim militant group and 17 security forces have been killed in a recent escalation of fighting in northwestern Rakhine State, the army said on Tuesday.
The death toll, announced in the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar daily, exceeded that reported by state media over the weekend, demonstrating the scale of the largest escalation of the conflict since violence erupted a month ago.
Diplomats and observers have held out hope that the military will swiftly conclude its “clearance operation” in the troubled north of Rakhine, but the recent wave of killings has cast a doubt over such prospects.
The violence is the most serious since hundreds were killed in communal clashes in Rakhine in 2012.
It has sharpened the tension between Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s six-month-old civilian administration and the army, which ruled for decades and retains key powers, including control of ministries responsible for security.
Soldiers have moved into the area along Myanmar’s frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on Oct. 9 that killed nine police officers.
They have locked down the area, where the vast majority of residents are Rohingya Muslims, shutting out aid workers and independent observers, and conducted sweeps of villages.
A series of skirmishes and attacks during the six days to Monday had led “to the death of 69 violent attackers and the arrest of 234,” the military’s True News Information Team said.
Ten policemen and seven soldiers died in the clashes, it added.
The announcement takes to 102 the tally of deaths of suspected Rohingya Muslim attackers since Oct.9, while the security forces’ toll stands at 32, Reuters has estimated from reports by state-owned media.
Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are the majority in northern Rakhine but are denied citizenship, with many of the country’s Buddhists regarding them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They face severe travel restrictions.
Residents and rights advocates have accused security forces of summary executions, rapes and setting fire to homes in the recent violence.
The government and army reject the accusations, blaming the “violent attackers” for setting fires to homes.
Rohingya rights advocates have distributed online video images of what they said were civilian casualties of the attacks, urging the international community to investigate.
Authorities have denied independent journalists access to the area, so Reuters has been unable to independently verify either the military accounts or the video clips.
Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Clarence Fernandez