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U.N. withdrawing staff from scene of unrest in western Myanmar

By the CNN Wire Staff
June 11, 2012 -- Updated 2337 GMT (0737 HKT)
  • NEW: Authorities threaten to censor reporting by non-government media
  • Violence in western Myanmar has killed at least 17 people in recent days
  • A state of emergency has been declared after clashes between Muslims and Buddhists
  • "Anarchic actions are becoming widespread," says President Thein Sein

(CNN) -- The United Nations said Monday that it has begun pulling staff out of a western state of Myanmar where the government has declared a state of emergency following clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

The inter-ethnic violence in the state of Rakhine has killed at least 17 people in just over a week, according to official media.

President Thein Sein's office issued an order imposing a state of emergency in Rakhine on Sunday, saying "riots and disturbances" had spread, according to the New Light of Myanmar, a government-run newspaper.

The United Nations is temporarily relocating its staff from the area on a voluntary basis for safety reasons, said Ashok Nigam, the organization's resident and humanitarian coordinator in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

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He said news reports and information from U.N. workers suggested that the unrest was making it impossible to continue operating in the region.

Violence in the western coastal area of Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh, erupted after the police detained three Muslim men in relation to the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman late last month.

Anger over the case fueled an attack by about 300 local people on a bus in the Taungup area of Rakhine that killed 10 Muslim passengers on June 3, according to the New Light of Myanmar.

Clashes have multiplied since then, alarming the authorities.

Rakhine is home to the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who say they have been persecuted by Myanmar's ruling military junta and have long sought refuge in other places.

Over the years, Rohingya have fled by sea in small boats to other countries like Thailand and Malaysia. The United Nations has estimated that more than 200,000 Rohingya live in legal limbo in Bangladesh.

"What is currently happening in the Rakhine state is about putting grievances, hatred, and desire for revenge at the forefront, based on racial and religious grounds, and that's why anarchic actions are becoming widespread," Thein Sein, the president and former military official, said in a televised address Sunday.

The unrest runs counter to the efforts of Thein Sein's administration to seek reconciliation with Myanmar's different ethnic groups and move the country toward more democratic governance. Western governments have rewarded progress in the country over the past year by easing economic sanctions.

Violence in Rakhine on Friday killed seven people and wounded 17, according to the New Light of Myanmar. It said that 494 houses, 19 shops and one guesthouse were destroyed.

The state of emergency means that defense forces will help maintain order in the state.

The authorities also appear to be clamping down on the flow of information from Rakhine.

The board of censors has told non-government publications in Myanmar that it will censor any articles on the situation in the western state that are not based on official reports, according to two people from different news media organizations who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Attempts to reach the Myanmar authorities for comment on the matter on Monday were unsuccessful.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that the United States is concerned about the reported violence, and "urges all parties to exercise restraint and immediately halt all attacks."

Praising recent reform efforts by the Myanmar's national government, Clinton said: "The situation in Rakhine State underscores the critical need for mutual respect among all ethnic and religious groups and for serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation."

CNN's Sarita Harilela, Jethro Mullen and Licia Yee contributed to this report.

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