Asia

UN suspends food aid to refugees in Myanmar

Flare-up of unrest renews safety concerns, prompting relief workers to be pulled back as death toll surges.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has suspended aid works in Myanmar's Rakhine State citing safety concerns, as the violence escalated with a surging death toll among the Rohingya Muslim community.

In recent days, tens of thousands of Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh to escape mass killings they say are being perpetrated by Myanmar forces.

Myanmar officials blame the group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for the burning of homes in the area, but fleeing Rohingya civilians said a campaign of arson and killings by the Myanmar army is aimed at forcing them out of the country.

"We are coordinating with the authorities to resume distributions for all affected communities as soon as possible, including for any people newly affected by the current unrest," WFP said in a statement on Saturday.

The suspension of food assistance operations would affect 250,000 internally displaced and "other most vulnerable populations", the statement said. 

READ MORE: Myanmar says it killed 370 Rohingya 'fighters'

Of that number, around 120,000 people - most of them Rohingya Muslim civilians - have relied on aid hand-outs in camps since 2012, when religious riots killed scores and sparked a crisis which is again burning through the state.

In recent days, another wave of 58,600 Rohingya have fled the violence to Bangladesh from Myanmar, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Aid agencies, including the WFP, are routinely accused of a pro-Rohingya bias and the sudden flare-up of unrest has renewed safety concerns, prompting relief work to be pulled back.

The Myanmar government has also accused WFP of allowing their rations to fall into the hands of Rohingya "fighters", whom they accused of carrying out the August 25 attacks on police posts. 

The UN agency has denied those accusations by Myanmar's government

Rohingya refugees offer Eid prayer at a refugee camp near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border [AFP]

Violence against minorities

Over the last five years, Rakhine state has been cut along ethnic and religious lines, but the current violence is the worst yet.

On Friday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe after the killing of nearly 400 people - mostly Rohingya Muslims.

"The secretary-general is deeply concerned by the reports of excesses during the security operations conducted by Myanmar's security forces in Rakhine State and urges restraint and calm to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe," read a statement issued by his office.

The Rohingya, branded illegal immigrants in Myanmar and mostly denied citizenship, make up the vast majority of the dead and displaced since 2012.

Accounts from Rohingya survivors in Bangladesh and Buddhists who fled to Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, indicate the death toll may be much higher.

In interviews with Al Jazeera, Rohingya refugees spoke about their women being raped and homes being torched to the ground.

On Saturday, the Myanmar government said that more than 2,700 houses have been burned down in Rakhine.

ARSA has claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on security posts last week that prompted clashes and a large army counteroffensive, leading to the massive exodus of Rohingya. 

The treatment of Buddhist-majority Myanmar's roughly 1.1 million Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing leader Aung San Suu Kyi, accused by Western critics of not speaking out for a minority that has long complained of persecution.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies