Myanmar Air Force helicopters fire on armed villagers in Rakhine state

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Story highlights

  • Rakhine State is home to many Rohingyas, a persecuted minority in Myanmar
  • Human Rights Watch says Rohingya villages have been destroyed by fire

(CNN)Myanmar's government says Air Force helicopters opened fire on attackers in troubled Rakhine State Sunday after two soldiers were killed in clashes with men armed with guns, knives and spears.

As many as 500 men ambushed troops as they tried to carry out "clearance operations" in Maungtaw and Yathedaung townships near the border with Bangladesh, according to a government statement.
    After forces repelled them with gunfire, six attackers were found dead and 36 men were arrested, the statement said.
    Rakhine State is home to a large population of Rohingya Muslims, a stateless ethnic minority that's faced discrimination and persecution for years.
    Human rights advocates had hoped their treatment would improve under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party took power earlier this year. However progress has been slow.
    Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country, officially denies recognition of the term "Rohingya" and regards them as illegal Bengali migrants.
    Myanmar security forces have been accused of targeting Rohingyas, but officials say it is targeting insurgents in "clearance operations."
    Heavily armed Myanmar army troops patrol Kyinkanpyin area in Maungdaw town, Rakhine State October 16, 2016.

    Villages destroyed

    Human Rights Watch said Sunday that satellite images taken in October and November showed that 430 homes in three Rohingya villages had been destroyed by fire.
    Who are the Rohingya?

    • The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state thought to number between 800,000 and one million.
    • Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens or one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups living in the country.
    • Much of this is rooted in their heritage in East Bengal, now called Bangladesh.
    • Though many Rohingya have only known life in Myanmar, they are widely viewed as intruders from across the border.
    • According to Human Rights Watch, laws discriminate against the Rohingya, infringing on their freedom of movement, education, and employment.
    • They are denied land and property rights and ownership, and land on which they live can be taken away at any given time.

    "New satellite images not only confirm the widespread destruction of Rohingya villages but show that it was even greater than we first thought," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
    The group said that the destruction took place following deadly attacks on border guard posts on October 9 that the Myanmar government said was carried out by a Rohingya group. HRW says it's not clear who was responsible.
    "The authorities need to allow the UN, the media, and rights monitors unfettered access into the area to determine what happened and what needs to be done," Adams said.
    Calls to Myanmar's presidential office for comment went unanswered.
    In October, the UN called for "maximum restraint" after a spate of violent attacks on security forces near the city of Maungtaw.
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    'Uphill battle'

    Suu Kyi's NLD party scored a landmark victory in elections one year ago, but little progress has been made on addressing the rights of the Rohingya, often referred to as the world's most persecuted people.
    In a statement last month, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee called for the removal of all discriminatory orders, policies and practices.
    "I am also extremely concerned that humanitarian programs providing health, food, education and nutrition assistance have been suspended and access by humanitarian and other groups has not been granted," Lee added.
    In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria in September, Suu Kyi said it was an "uphill battle."
    "We have a lot of trouble trying to bring about the kind of harmony and understanding and tolerance that we wish for."

    Convoy attacked

    In separate statement Sunday, the ministry said armed attackers ambushed a convoy of border guards, policemen and government officials in the same state.
    The attackers set off an improvised explosive device as the convoy approached the bridge and advanced, but border guards repelled the men, forcing them to retreat, the statement said.
    No one was injured in the attack, but a vehicle was damaged.