YANGON, Myanmar — Buddhist mobs killed at least 40 Muslims when they stormed a village in western Myanmar last week, hunting down residents with knives, a human rights group said Thursday, citing witness testimony and a wide network of sources on the ground.
Despite mounting evidence, the government has vehemently denied any deaths, except that of a police sergeant attacked by Rohingya Muslim villagers.
Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, called on the government to give humanitarian aid workers, independent observers and journalists unfettered access to Du Char Yar Tan village in northern Rakhine state, which has been emptied out and sealed off since the Jan. 14 attack. He said that as of Wednesday, there were still bodies in abandoned homes.
He also called for an end to mass arrests of Rohingya men and boys, some as young as 10.
"These arbitrary detentions broaden the scope of the human rights violations in the area and should be immediately brought to an end," Smith said. "There needs to be accountability for this wave of horrific violence ... but mass arrests of Muslim men and boys are not the way."
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been grappling with sectarian violence for nearly two years. If confirmed, the deaths in Du Char Yar Tan would bring to more than 280 the number of people killed, most of them members of the country's long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim community. Another 250,000 people have fled their homes.
Northern Rakhine State — home to 80 percent of the country's 1 million Rohingya — runs along the Bay of Bengal and is cut off from the rest of the country by a mountain range. It's off-limits to foreign journalists and access to humanitarian aid workers severely restricted, adding to the difficulties of confirming details about the violence or the death toll.
Estimates of the deaths by the United Nations, which sent investigators to the region last week, also reach in the dozens, according to embassy officials and aid workers. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the U.N. was expected to issue its own statement on the violence later Thursday.
Security forces surrounded Du Char Yar Tan on Jan. 14 after Rohingya Muslim residents allegedly abducted and killed a police sergeant. Fearing reprisals, most of the men fled, but rights groups and residents from neighboring villages said revenge-seeking Buddhist mobs entered with knives and guns and started attacking women and children.
In the hours that followed, riot police started arresting all male Rohingya, including children over the age of 10, in surrounding areas, Smith said.
The Myanmar government has repeatedly denied that any violence or killing took place in the area, apart from the death of the police sergeant and an alleged mob attack by Rohingya Muslims on police.
A statement published on the Ministry of Information website on Thursday said that Chief Minister of Rakhine State Hla Maung Tin visited the area on Wednesday and told people about the "false news published and aired by foreign media that children and women were killed in the violence."
Officials with the U.N. accompanied the government delegation but did not offer immediate comment.
"The government should immediately provide unfettered humanitarian access to the area and grant access for national and international media," said Smith.
The U.N. describes the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
Some of the people there descend from families that have been there generations. Others arrived more recently from neighboring Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless.
For decades, they have been unable to travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors. They need special approval to marry and are the only people in the country barred from having more than two children.