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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Myanmar crisis: Rohingya militants say unilateral truce to end on October 9

A statement from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army did not include any direct threats of new violence

Rohingya refugees carry a sick woman at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on October 7, 2017. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP
Rohingya refugees carry a sick woman at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on October 7, 2017. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

Rohingya militants whose attacks triggered an army crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state unleashing a huge wave of refugees said on Saturday their one-month unilateral ceasefire would end in two days, but added they were open to a peace deal if the government offered it.

In a statement released through its Twitter account, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) said its truce would end at midnight on October 9.

"The humanitarian pause was conducted in order to enable humanitarian actors to assess and respond to the humanitarian crisis in Arakan (Rakhine)," Arsa said.

"If at any stage the Burmese government is inclined to peace, then Arsa will welcome that inclination and reciprocate."

The statement did not include any direct threats of new violence.

Myanmar's government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday but has previously said the country does not "negotiate with terrorists".

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The poorly-armed Arsa tipped northern Rakhine into crisis when it ambushed police posts on August 25.

The army responded with a sweeping crackdown that the United Nations says amounts to ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority, who have faced decades of persecution.

More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the last six weeks, an exodus that has spiralled into one of the world's most urgent refugee crises.

In its statement on Saturday, Arsa said it had helped provide "safe passage" to refugees fleeing to Bangladesh.

While the worst of the bloodshed appears to have abated in recent weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya continue to stream over to Bangladesh, passing through a violence-scarred region where hundreds of villages have been reduced to smouldering ash.

Rohingya refugees and rights groups have accused the army of setting the fires with the help of Buddhist vigilante mobs.

But the military has denied the charge, instead accusing militants of razing their own homes to drum up global support and committing other atrocities against Buddhists and Hindus.

Myanmar authorities have cut off access to the conflict zone, making it difficult to verify claims over who is driving the communal bloodshed that has intensified already bitter ethnic hatreds.

Aid groups have also been unable to reach vulnerable Rohingya communities still living in the region, as tensions with Rakhine Buddhist neighbours have skyrocketed.

Arsa's fighting capacity at this stage is unknown.

The group, which launched its first major attack last October, remains hopelessly outgunned by the Myanmar military and relies mostly on crude weapons.

But analysts say its leadership has spent years building up support in village cells across northern Rakhine, recruiting young men to the cause of defending the Rohingya's political rights.

In the squalid refugee settlements sprouting up in Bangladesh, alleged Arsa recruiters say they have enlisted hundreds who are willing to go back to Myanmar to fight.

But other refugees said they simply wanted an end to the violence.

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"The (Myanmar) military and Arsa should sit in a round-table meeting … there is no point in killing and butchering each other," said Mohammed Idriss, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh's Kutupalong camp.

Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina said on Saturday that her government would continue to support Rohingya who had fled to her country.

She said the government was pursuing a plan to build temporary shelters for the Rohingya on an island with the help of international aid agencies whom she praised for their support.

Ms Hasina accused Myanmar of creating tensions at the border, but said she has asked the country's security forces to deal with the crisis "very carefully".

"They pretended like they wanted a war," she said.

More than 500,000 Rohingya have crossed over to Bangladesh since late August. An equal number had previously fled Myanmar since 1978.

Ms Hasina's assurances on Saturday came as a top UN official said that Bangladesh's plan to build the world's biggest refugee camp for 800,000-plus Rohingya was dangerous because overcrowding could heighten the risks of deadly diseases spreading quickly.

Hard-pressed Bangladesh authorities plan to expand a refugee camp at Kutupalong near the border town of Cox's Bazar to accommodate all of the Rohingya refugees who have fled to the country.

But Robert Watkins, the UN resident coordinator in Dhaka, said Bangladesh should instead look for new sites to build more camps.

"When you concentrate too many people into a very small area, particularly the people who are very vulnerable to diseases, it is dangerous," Mr Watkins said.

"There are stronger possibilities, if there are any infectious diseases that spread, that will spread very quickly," he added, also highlighting fire risks.

"It is much easier to manage people, manage the health situation and security situation if there are a number of different camps rather than one concentrated camp."

At the request of the Bangladesh government, the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) has agreed to co-ordinate the work of aid agencies and help build shelters at the new camp site.

According to the IOM, the proposed camp will be the world's largest, dwarfing Bidi Bidi in Uganda and Dadaab in Kenya, which both house around 300,000 refugees.

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