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Massive combing after 89 killed in Rakhine militant attacks


Myanmar soldiers walk in Chain Khar Li Rakhine ethnic village, an area close to fighting at Rathedaung township of northern Rakhine State, western Myanmar, 25 August 2017. Photo: Nyunt Win/EPA

Authorities say the death toll in Friday's militant attacks has risen to 89 with many more bodies of Rohingya insurgents found in areas around the scene of fighting.

Many insurgents, injured during the attacks, were found dead in fields and roads around the zone of attack that encompassed three townships - Maung Taw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.  That's a much wider area covered by the rebels compared to the insurgent attacks in October last year.

At least security personnel -- 11 policemen and 1 soldier -- were killed when the militants attacked 19 police stations and outposts and then tried to storm a camp of the 552 Light Infantry regiment at Khamara.

Military sources said at least 1,000 insurgents were involved in the attack, but residents in Maung Taw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung said many armed villagers joined the Rohingya rebels in the attacks with just sharp cutting weapons like machetes.

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, the Myanmar authorities 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), TaungBazzar, Phaungtawpyin and Maungtaw (Natala).

Eleven 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 at least 77 rebels had been gunned down, many of them when they tried to storm the camp.

But residents in areas around the three embattled townships told Mizzima on condition of anonymity that many of those attacking the police stations were not hard core insurgents but armed villagers who are bitter over military atrocities.

"Many such villagers were later gunned down by troops during combing operations," one senior resident at MaungDaw said.   

The military press release said some Rohingya houses have been set on fire but said the "Rohingyas were doing it themselves to embarrass 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 both bullet and 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 with much numbers to overwhelm the smaller deployments in outlying police stations or military outposts. .

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 of 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 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.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks in a Twitter post but did not either mention the number of deaths or how many fighters were involved.

In the Twitter post, ARSA, accusing the Myanmar forces of killings and rape, said they had just taken   "defensive actions" in more than 25 different locations.

The township of Rathetaung in northern Rakhine has been under "a blockade for more than two weeks which is starving the Rohingya people to death", it said.

"As they prepare to do the same in Maungdaw … we had to eventually step in to drive the Burmese colonising forces away."

The group warned of more attacks to come.

ARSA is led by Ata Ullah, a Rohingya man born in Saudi Arabia .

It has denied links to foreign militant groups but Indian and Bangladesh intelligence says ARSA has operational links to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Indian Mujahideen and Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Tayabba (LET)

Mizzima had earlier exposed a LET effort to recruit Rohingya youths for militant action under cover of providing relief in Rakhine camps through its humanitarian front, Fala e Insaniyat.

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