- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AP) - Thousands more Rohingya Muslims are fleeing large-scale violence and persecution in Myanmar and crossing into Bangladesh, where more than half a million others are already living in squalid and overcrowded camps, according to witnesses and a drone video shot by the U.N. refugee agency.

The UNHCR video shot Monday shows thousands upon thousands of Rohingya Muslims trudging along a narrow strip of land alongside what appears to a rain-swollen creek in the Palong Khali area in southern Bangladesh. The line of refugees stretches for a few kilometers (miles).

Witnesses say a new wave of refugees started crossing the border over the weekend. An Associated Press photographer saw thousands of newcomers near one border crossing Tuesday. Several said that they were stopped by Bangladeshi border guards and spent the night in muddy rice fields.

In Geneva on Tuesday, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Rohingya had fled since Sunday night - raising the overall total to 582,000 refugees who have left Myanmar since Aug. 25.

Nearly 60 percent of the refugees are children. The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, warned Tuesday that without immediate additional funding, it will not be able to continue providing life-saving aid and protection to Rohingya children. UNICEF said it has received just 7 percent of the $76 million it needs.

Mahecic said the latest influx came through the Anjuman Para border crossing point, and many of the new refugees explained they had fled when their villages were set on fire. Anjuman Para is in the Palong Khali area where the drone video was shot.

“As of this morning, they are still squatting in the paddy fields of Anjuman Para village in Bangladesh,” Mahecic told a news briefing. “They are waiting for permission to move away from the border, where the sound of gunfire continues to be heard every night from the Myanmar side.”

The violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s Rakhine state erupted after a Rohingya insurgent group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked at least 30 security outposts on Aug. 25 and the military responded with brutal attacks against the Rohingya Muslim population.

The exodus of Rohingya has continued, with a few small breaks, over the last eight weeks.

The new arrivals, almost all terrified and starving, described scenes of incredible violence with army troops and Buddhist mobs attacking Rohingya homes. The U.N. has described the violence as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

More recent refugees have also said the Rohingya were being starved in a bid to make them leave.

A woman who spoke to the AP on Tuesday after her arrival said they had had no food to eat.

“We came here two nights ago with lots of difficulties. It took us eight days to reach here,” said Anjuma, who gave just one name.

Several refugees said Bangladesh border guards were not letting them move toward the refugee camps and they were forced to spend the night in the open in pelting rain.

Myanmar officials have denied any systematic violence against the Rohingya Muslims. On Monday, the commander in chief of the country’s army accused them of bullying Buddhists in Rakhine with the help of foreign organizations, which he said includes the United Nations.

Senior General Min Aung referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” as he spoke to Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs.

Many Buddhists in Myanmar call the Rohingya “Bengalis” and say they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, even though they have lived in the country for generations. Most Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982 and are excluded from the country’s 135 official ethnic groups, which effectively renders them stateless.

“Bengalis themselves need to accept the fact that they are Bengalis, not Rohingya,” the army chief said.

During his visit to Myanmar from Oct. 13-17, the U.N. said Feltman viewed dozens of burned and destroyed villages in Rakhine state by air and visited several communities affected by the recent violence. He also visited camps for Rohingyas outside the state capital Sittwe set up following intercommunal violence in 2012.

“He witnessed how, in addition to the documented endemic discrimination against the Rohingya population, socioeconomic challenges adversely affect all communities,” the U.N. said in a note to correspondents at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Feltman met with officials including the army chief and the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to press Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for humanitarian workers to be given full and unhindered access to northern Rakhine state, and for refugees to be allowed to return voluntarily and safely from Bangladesh to their homes, the note said.

But the U.N. note didn’t indicate any progress.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, asked about Feltman returning empty-handed, replied: “I don’t think, in announcing the trip, we had expected any quick wins. This is an ongoing discussion with the government of Myanmar. It is one we’re having publicly and one we’re having privately.”

Asked what was blocking access to humanitarian aid, he said, “I think that’s a valid question to ask the authorities of Myanmar. … We would like to see that access as soon as possible.”

In Washington, D.C., a bipartisan group of nine U.S. senators wrote to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday commending her for opening her nation’s borders to Rohingya but also urging her to accelerate the approvals for aid groups to do humanitarian work and increase cooperation with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.

“This will ensure proper coordination of assistance, including building of appropriate shelters, and adequate provision of food and medical care, as well as psychosocial support to address widespread trauma among the population,” said the signatories, led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

___

Associated Press writers Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi; Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; and Matthew Pennington in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.

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