At least ten policemen, one army soldier and twenty-one Rohingya Muslim insurgents have been killed in a fresh wave of violent attacks in the northern part of Myanmar's Rakhine state, official sources said on Friday.
The militants staged coordinated simultaneous attacks on 19 police outposts that cover 24 villages around Maung Taw and tried unsuccessfully to storm an army base, they said.
The attacks came within hours of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,presenting his Rakhine Commission report to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, marking a huge escalation in the Muslim insurgency in Rakhine state.
The long dormant insurgency suddenly came to the fore in October last year, when Rohingya rebels killed nine policemen in coordinated attacks, prompting a massive military response marred by allegations of extra-judicial executions, rape and arson.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement”, which instigated the October attacks, claimed responsibility for the early morning attacks and threatened more.
Just past midnight on Friday, around 1am local time, 19 police posts in 24 villages around Maung Taw township in northern Rakhine were encircled and attacked by guerillas and villagers armed with automatic rifles and sharp weapons, said a statement from the State Counsellor's Information office.
The police stations and outposts attacked were identified as Natchaung, Tamantha, Kuntheepin-Chaungwa, Nantthataung, Nantthataung-Chaungwa, Meetaik-Chaungwa, Kyeekyun, Zeepin-chaungwa, Laungdon, Thihokyun, Zinpaingnyar, Tharaykonboung, Panyaungbingyi, Shweyinaye, Myinlut, Alethankyaw, Udaung (Natala), Taung Bazzar, Phaungtawpyin and Maungtaw (Natala).
Ten policemen were killed in the attack, most of them brutally hacked with sharp weapons, bleeding to death from cut wounds, said Maung taw MP U Maung Ohn.
A Tatmadaw (military) press release said one soldier has also been killed when the rebels tried to storm the camp of the 552 Light Infantry Regiment at Khamara at 3am. The rebels were beaten back, the statement said.
It said atleast 21 rebels had been gunned down, most of them when they tried to storm the camp.
The press release said some Rohingya houses have been set on fire but said the "Rohingyas were doing it themselves to embarass the government and security forces."
Rakhine police chief Colonel Sein Lwin confirmed the rise in deaths was due to several badly injured policemen and rebels succumbing to deep cut wounds.
He said the road from Maung Taw to Buthidaung had been closed down to vehicular traffic.
Pannpwint website carried pictures of a tall insurgent lying dead in a paddy field with a very long sword by his side. It also carried pictures of badly hacked policemen lying dead. Mizzima avoids carrying such pictures for risk of inciting inter-ethnic tensions.
It was not yet clear whether those attackers killed were all armed guerillas or had some villagers among them or a mix of the two.
The Rohingya militants appear to be adopting offensive tactics used by Maoists in India or Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Muslim insurgents in India's Kashmir, when they mobilise a large number of their supporters in the villages to conceal their guerrilla formations and then join the attack.
The villagers who have suffered at the hands of security forces tend to be more brutal in hacking and slashing the security forces.
"That upsets the forces and leads to more atrocities, which means more alienation for the local population and more recruits for the insurgents. The rebels are working to a plan for not only demoralising their forces but also creating a recruitment base. It is now up to the military leadership to see through the rebel designs and control their forces," says regional insurgency specialist Subir Bhaumik, who has worked extensively on guerrilla campaigns in South Asia.
This appears to be the biggest and most coordinated Rohingya rebel attacks since security forces started special operations in the Mayu mountains of northern Rakhine. The 33rd Light Infantry Division is involved in the massive operation designed to encircle the Rohingya rebel bases, block their escape routes to Bangladesh and decimate them.
On Thursday, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan warned against 'long drawn operations' in Rakhine and stressed on creating human rights awareness amongst Myanmar army and other security forces involved in the counter-insurgency operations during his meeting with Tatmadaw chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The general later expressed his angst, 'questioning some facts' in the Kofi Annan report.
Analysts believe the attacks were perhaps designed to divert the focus of the operations and force security forces into a heavy static deployment that would draw away numbers from the offensive operations.