Teachers and workers flee clashes in northern Myanmar

Yangon (AFP) - Teachers and government workers fled northern border districts of Myanmar on Wednesday after clashes in Rakhine state left a dozen dead, fearing worsening violence in a region long-scarred by sectarian unrest.

Crowds huddled on the jetty in the state capital of Sittwe after arriving by boat from near the Bangladesh border, an area home to the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority that has been locked down by the military after attacks on border guards.

Twelve people have died in clashes between armed men and troops in recent days, state media said, including four soldiers killed when they were set upon by hundreds of men wielding pistols and swords.

One attacker was also found dead after the clashes in Pyaungpit, a village near Maungdaw -- the town at the epicentre of the recent unrest.

Troops also found seven dead after fighting in the nearby village of Taung Paing Nyar, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported, raising the toll from Tuesday.

"After the incident, troops found seven dead bodies," it said. "Swords and sticks were found with the bodies."

The military has locked down the area around Maungdaw after nine police officers were killed on Sunday in attacks on three border posts which authorities blamed on mobs wielding swords and homemade weapons.

More than 400 schools have been closed in Maungdaw and the surrounding area and a curfew has been enforced between 7pm and 6am.

Most people in the impoverished area are Muslim Rohingya, a stateless minority whom Myanmar's Buddhist hardliners vilify as illegal immigrants -- even though many trace their ancestry in Myanmar back for generations.

The recent unrest has raised the spectre of a repeat of 2012, when violence in Rakhine left more than 100 people dead and drove tens of thousands of Rohingya into displacement camps.

Activists claim the military is using the search for the attackers as a pretext for a crackdown on the Rohingya, whom rights groups describe as one of the world's most persecuted peoples.

Rumours of killings and mass arrests have spread like wildfire on social media, stoking fear. But details have proved difficult to confirm in the remote and tightly controlled area.

- 'Delicate juncture' -

A total of 29 people have died in the recent clashes, according to state media, police and government sources, including troops, attackers and the border guards killed in Sunday's raids.

Four suspects in the border attacks -- including two who were captured on Tuesday -- are being held by law enforcement, according to state media.

The escalating violence in the region poses a major challenge for the country's new democratic leadership.

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is facing international pressure to reach a solution for the Rohingya, whose plight has tarnished the country's major democratic gains.

She recently appointed a commission, headed by former UN chief Kofi Annan, to find ways to heal wounds in the bitterly divided and poor state.

On Wednesday the Nobel laureate vowed to follow the rule of law when investigating the border guard attacks.

"Until we know clearly what is happening, we will not accuse anyone," she said at the foreign ministry in Naypyidaw.

"We will only bring charges when we have concrete and firm evidence."

Authorities have released few details about the attackers or their motives, with some blaming the Rohingya and others pointing the finger at Bangladeshi groups.

The UN's special adviser to the secretary-general on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, urged troops and residents to exercise restraint at what he termed a "delicate juncture" for the state.

He also called on civilians to "not be provoked into any kind of response by targeting other communities or religious groups".

The European Union also called for an investigation to be carried out "in line with the rule of law".

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