YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's government said Monday that 34 people were killed after they attacked government troops in Rakhine state over the weekend, but residents of the villages belonging to the Muslim Rohingya minority said the victims they saw were unarmed civilians.
The government has been conducting counterinsurgency operations since nine police were killed in attacks last month on guard posts along the border with Bangladesh generally blamed on Muslim insurgents. Tensions have been high in Rakhine since fighting in 2012 between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
The government said in a statement that 28 people described as violent attackers were killed Sunday in Maungdaw district. An earlier statement said six attackers died on Saturday, in addition to two government soldiers. The attackers weren't identified, but the army has aligned with Rakhine Buddhists against the Rohingya.
A Rohingya from Kyein Chaung village contacted by phone said he saw a police truck taking at least six bodies from the village on Sunday.
Other villagers, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, said the people whose bodies they saw were completely unarmed.
Nay San Lwin, a blogger based in Europe who has closely monitored Rohingya developments since 2012, said some villagers possess weapons such as swords and knives, but it was unclear whether they were used against the soldiers.
"Since the violence last month, villagers have been accused of burning their own houses. Villagers are hiding in the forest. No one dares to live in their own house because of the arrests and killing," said a teacher from Kyein Chaung village, who insisted he not be named.
Human rights groups accuse the army of abuses against the Rohingya minority, including killings, rapes and burning of homes. More than 100,000 Rohingya are still living in squalid camps for the internally displaced after being driven from their homes in 2012. Although Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and the government denies citizenship to most.
A local police officer refused to answer any questions related to the situation, saying he was not allowed to say anything. The Rakhine state government also refused to comment.
The central government statement said in one incident Sunday in Gwason village, "Seven violent attackers wielding with machetes ran towards the troops in order to attack. The troops returned fire, killing six."
It said soldiers and border guard police were later "attacked by about 20 violent aggressors equipped with machetes and wooden clubs while the security forces were conducting the clearance operation in Dargyizartaung village."
It said the troops fired on them and killed 19.
The earlier statement said clashes began Saturday morning when government troops were ambushed by about 60 attackers armed with guns, knives and spears. It said the troops were outnumbered in a later battle against 500 armed men, but prevailed when two air force helicopters joined the fight.
The government said attackers also set fire to local villages. Human rights groups, however, have accused government forces of burning down Rohingya villages. On Saturday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said satellite images showed 430 houses in three Rohingya villages had been burned, and called for an investigation by the government.