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Calm returns to Myanmar violence-hit city

Army regains control of central city of Meikhtila where clashes between Muslims and Buddhists have left dozens dead.
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2013 12:22
The violence is the worst sectarian bloodshed to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year [AFP]

Myanmar's army has regained control of a central city where several days of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left dozens of people dead and scores of buildings in flames.

Truckloads of soldiers could be seen on Saturday patrolling Meikhtila and taking up positions at intersections and banks.

"Calm has been restored after troops have taken charge of security," said Win Htein, an opposition legislator from Meikhtila.

"So far, nearly 6,000 Muslim people have been relocated at a stadium and a police station for their safety."

Some residents, who had cowered in their homes for days since the mayhem began on Wednesday, started venturing out on the streets to take in the destruction.

The violence is the worst sectarian bloodshed to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year.

Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, imposed a state of emergency in the region on Friday in a bid to stop the unrest from spreading.

The violence, the first of its kind reported in Myanmar since a wave of bloodshed shook western Rakhine state twice last year, underscored the government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in the predominantly Buddhist country.

It was not immediately clear which side bore the brunt of the latest unrest, but terrified Muslims, who make about 30 percent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, stayed off the streets on Friday.

Machetes seized

Many had their shops and homes burned and some angry Buddhist residents and monks tried to stop firefighters from dousing the blazes.

Riot police crisscrossed town seizing machetes and hammers from enraged Buddhist mobs.

At least five mosques were torched and thousands of terrified Muslims have fled their homes, escorted to safety by police to two make-shift camps. Some Buddhists, meanwhile, have sought shelter at local monasteries.

Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where whole plots were reduced to smouldering masses of twisted debris and ash.

Broken glass, destroyed motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burnt-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos of the last two days.

Residents described gruesome scenes. Local businessman San Hlaing said he counted 28 bodies this week and had seen blackened corpses burning in piles.

The government's struggle to contain the violence is proving another major challenge to Sein's reformist administration as it attempts to chart a path to democracy after nearly half a century of military rule that once crushed all dissent.

Thein Sein took office two years ago this month, and despite ushering in an era of reform, he has faced violence in Rakhine state and an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north.

The government has also had to deal with major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents - emboldened by promises of freedom of expression - have come out to denounce land grabbing. 

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