Mobs armed with swords and sticks torched dozens of shops and houses in Myanmar's central Sagaing region at the weekend in new communal violence sparked by reports that a Buddhist woman was sexually assaulted by Muslim men, according to witnesses and officials.
Several people, including a regional security minister, a fireman, and a monk who moved to contain the violence, were injured after being hit by slingshots carried by some of the hundreds of Buddhist rioters who went on a rampage in Htan Gone village in Sagaing's Kanbalu township, they said.
Some reports said up to 1,000 rioters were involved, attacking also a mosque and preventing fire engines from reaching the razed homes and shops.
Police had to fire several rounds of warning shots to keep the mobs at bay and detained about a dozen suspected arsonists as they brought the situation under control by Sunday.
It was the first anti-Muslim violence reported in Sagaing as communal unrest continues to spread after two deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes erupted in western Rakhine state last year, threatening the reform drive by reformist President Thein Sein.
Police station mobbed
Kanbalu police said more than 30 Muslim houses and shops were gutted in the violence after, according to reports, a crowd mobbed a police station in Htan Gone village, demanding that a suspect detained over a reported assault of a Buddhist woman be handed over.
The woman was from a nearby village where the initiators of the riot came from, sources said.
"The district police chief arrived and requested the mob to break up," an eyewitness, Win Aung from a neighboring village, told RFA's Myanmar Service.
"As they went away in two groups, they destroyed some stalls near the police station and then one group went to the mosque, pelting it with rocks," he said, adding that he witnessed about 60 people with swords and machetes going on a rampage.
"The Muslims inside [the mosque] retaliated. The rock-throwing went on for a few minutes," he said.
The mob then set fire to two Muslim-owned teashops and prevented firemen from going to the area to fight the blaze.
"When the fire engine tried to force its way slowly, somebody hit a fireman with a slingshot, injuring his forehead," Win Aung said. The rioters also cut off two of the hoses used by the firemen.
He said a group of monks had pleaded with the angry mob to allow the people to prevent the blaze from spreading to the homes.
"Muslims were guarding the [two] well-built mosques [in the village] and they were not destroyed, but all the shops and houses near a railroad owned by Muslims were destroyed," a woman villager told RFA.
A monk who tried to mediate was injured in the head by a slingshot while Kyi Myaing, the Sagaing division's security minister, and an army personnel member were also hit, officials said.
Myint Naing, an opposition parliamentarian and medical doctor from Kanbalu, blamed the authorities for the violence, citing a lack of security measures to swiftly contain the situation.
"It shouldn’t have happened," said the lawmaker from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. "My clinic was there for 10 years and people lived peacefully without a fight. Violence erupted in [other places as well in recent months] and why can’t they stop it?"
Two outbreaks of conflict in the western state of Rakhine in June and October last year left about 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced, mostly Rohingya Muslims who are seen by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The violence then spread to central Myanmar's Meikhtila and Oakkan towns in March and April, respectively, and Lashio township in eastern Shan state in May.
A U.N. human rights envoy on a trip to Myanmar said that he had to abandon a visit to a refugee camp in Meikhtila last week after his car was attacked by a Buddhist mob.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said that his Aug. 19 experience reminded him of the fear that had gripped residents during the violence then.
The Myanmar government has denied his claim, saying Quintana had faced "peaceful" protesters scrambling to hand him a petition and said it did not consider the incident an attack.
Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.