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Riots spread as US issues travel warning

Fears that anti-Muslim attacks may reach Yangon

AFP, Yangon

AFP, Yangon

Published: March 26, 2013 09:32 AM GMT

Updated: March 26, 2013 10:56 PM GMT

Riots spread as US issues travel warning

Communal riots in Myanmar have spread closer to the main city Yangon, police said on Tuesday as the United States warned against travelling to parts of the country in the wake of unrest that has left 40 dead.

Fresh clashes broke out late on Monday in villages in the Bago region north of Yangon, police said, as the Buddhist-Muslim violence that has gripped areas further north rippled out towards the country's commercial hub.

"Police and soldiers had to control the clashes almost the whole night," a police officer who did not want to be named said of the violence in Bago, where two mosques and dozens of homes were reported to have been destroyed.

"Security forces are still watching the area closely as Muslim communities are staying in that region," he said, adding that there were no reports of casualties in the latest incident.

In a statement on its website, the US Embassy in Yangon said the rioting "has resulted in strong feelings on many sides". It "strongly advised" citizens to avoid travel to the Mandalay region as well as to the Mingalar Market/Yuzana Plaza area of Yangon because of the risk of violence.

Police in the main city of Yangon have been instructed to be extra vigilant, a second police officer said.

"Police in every township are on alert and ready in case something happens," he said, adding that some soldiers had also been on patrol in the former capital.

The clashes are a stark reminder of the challenge that Muslim-Buddhist tensions pose to Myanmar's government as it tries to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule ended two years ago.

In a televised statement late on Monday, Myanmar's government called for an end to "religious extremism" that it warned could derail the Buddhist-majority country's reform process.

The quasi-civilian government has faced strong international pressure over the unrest, which according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has displaced more than 12,000 people.

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The clashes, apparently triggered by an argument in a gold shop, began on March 20 in Meiktila, 130 kms north of Naypyidaw, with mosques burned, houses razed and charred bodies left lying in the streets.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said that eight new bodies were retrieved from the debris during the clean-up operation over the weekend.

Dozens of people have been detained in connection with the violence, which saw armed rioters including Buddhist monks roam the streets, threatening journalists who visited Meiktila.

It was the worst sectarian strife since violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine last year left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.

The bloodshed has raised fears that long-standing religious tensions that were largely suppressed during junta rule could now spread to other parts of the country.

After a state of emergency was declared on Friday and the army was sent into the area, an uneasy calm has returned to Meiktila, where a nighttime curfew has been imposed.

Elsewhere, however, there were signs of fresh trouble over the weekend with violence on Saturday night leaving more than 40 houses and a mosque in ruins in Yamethin township near Naypyidaw, according to a ward official.

Unrest was also reported in several other villages in the area.

The mood has also grown nervous in parts of Yangon, according to residents, where the regional government on Monday ordered restaurants or shops selling alcohol to close by 9:00 pm in a move aimed at stopping the spread of rumors.

According to the New Light, a group of unnamed persons "who are unwilling to see peace and stability in the country are trying to destabilize the peace and tranquillity of Yangon". AFP

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