U.N. rights forum to hold special session on Myanmar Rohingya – U.N. sources

U.N. rights forum to hold special session on Myanmar Rohingya - U.N. sources

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to hold a special session on killings, rapes and other crimes committed against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar that have driven more than 600,000 into Bangladesh since August, U.N. sources said on Monday.

“There will be a special session on December 5,” a senior United Nations source told Reuters.

Council spokesman Rolando Gomez could not confirm the date but said: “There are moves to convene a special session to address the human rights situation in the country.”

At least 16 of the 47 member states must request holding a special session of the Council, which are rare. Bangladesh and Muslim-majority countries were expected to back the call.

In March, the Council already set up a fact-finding team. The investigators reported after their first mission to Bangladesh last month that Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar had testified that a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson is taking place”.

The latest Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh’s southern tip began at the end of August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has described the army’s crackdown in Rakhine state as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. The military has denied the accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement.

Amnesty International and other activist groups, in an open letter sent last week to member states, said that a special session was “imperative to launch decisive action and ensure international scrutiny and monitoring of the situation”.

Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar on Monday on a diplomatically delicate visit for the leader of the Roman Catholic church to the majority-Buddhist country.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Gareth Jones)

U.N. fears ‘further exodus’ of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, attends a news conference on his visit to Bangladesh for the Rohingya refugee crisis, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay and Robert Birsel

GENEVA/YANGON (Reuters) – The United Nations braced on Friday for a possible “further exodus” of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh six weeks after the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency began, U.N. humanitarian aid chief said.

Some 515,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine in an unrelenting movement of people that began after Myanmar security forces responded to Rohingya militant attacks with a brutal crackdown.

The United Nations has denounced the Myanmar military offensive as ethnic cleansing but Myanmar insists its forces are fighting “terrorists” who have killed civilians and burnt villages.

Rights groups say more than half of more than 400 Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine state have been torched in a campaign by the security forces and Buddhist vigilantes to drive out Muslims.

Mark Lowcock, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, reiterated an appeal for access to the population in northern Rakhine, saying the situation was “unacceptable”.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has blocked most access to the area, although some agencies have offices open in towns there and the International Committee of the Red Cross is helping the Myanmar Red Cross to deliver aid.

“This flow of people of Myanmar hasn’t stopped yet. Obviously there’s into the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still in Myanmar, and we want to be ready in case there is a further exodus,” Lowcock told a news briefing in Geneva.

Lowcock said a senior U.N. official was expected to visit Myanmar in the next few days.

An estimated 2,000 Rohingya are arriving in Bangladesh every day, Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration, told a separate briefing.

Myanmar officials have said they attempted to reassure groups trying to flee to Bangladesh but could not stop people who were not citizens from leaving.

The official Myanmar News Agency said on Friday “large numbers” of Muslims were preparing to cross the border. It cited their reasons as “livelihood difficulties”, health problems, a “belief” of insecurity and fear of becoming a minority.

RAIN-DRENCHED CAMPS

Aid agencies have warned of a malnutrition crisis with about 281,000 people in Bangladesh in urgent need of food, including 145,000 children under five and more than 50,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Cholera is a risk, amid fears of disease spreading in the rain-drenched camps where aid workers are trying to install sanitation systems, a spokesman for the World Health Organization said.

About 900,000 doses of cholera vaccine are due to arrive this weekend and a vaccination campaign should start on Tuesday.

U.N.-led aid bodies have appealed for $434 million over six months to help up to 1.2 million people – including 300,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh before the latest crisis and 300,000 Bangladeshi villagers in so-called host communities.

The Rohingya are regarded as illegal immigrants in Myanmar and most are stateless.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for not doing more to stop the violence, although a military-drafted constitution gives her no power over the security forces.

She has condemned rights abuses and said Myanmar was ready to start a process agreed with Bangladesh in 1993 by which anyone verified as a refugee would be accepted back.

Lowcock said talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh on a repatriation plan were a useful first step.

“But there is clearly a long way to go,” he said.

Both the United States and Britain have warned Myanmar the crisis is putting at risk the progress it has made since the military began to loosen its grip on power.

China, which built close ties with Myanmar while it was under military rule and Western sanctions, has been supportive.

In Washington, U.S. officials said sanctions and the withholding of aid were among the options available to press Myanmar to halt the violence but they had to be careful to avoid worsening the crisis.

“We don’t want to take actions that exacerbate their suffering. There is that risk in this complicated environment,” Patrick Murphy, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Murphy said efforts were under way to identify those responsible for rights violations.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. seeks urgent action on Myanmar, while U.N. eyes $200 million for refugees

A woman reacts as Rohingya refugees wait to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Antoni Slodkowski and Rahul Bhatia

YANGON/DHAKA (Reuters) – The United States wants Myanmar to take urgent action to end violence in Rakhine state, where a military offensive has created a crisis that could jeopardize its economic and political transition, a U.S. official said on Friday.

Bangladesh and aid organizations are struggling to help 422,000 Rohingya Muslims who have arrived since Aug. 25, when attacks by Rohingya militants triggered a Myanmar crackdown that the United Nations has branded ethnic cleansing.

A senior U.N. official said an estimated $200 million would be needed to help the refugees in Bangladesh for six months. Aid workers fear a humanitarian crisis is also unfolding in Rakhine state, though Myanmar has restricted access.

“We think, urgently, actions need to be taken to stop this violence and facilitate humanitarian assistance, lower the rhetoric, lower the tension and … start doing the hard work to solve the longer-standing problems,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy told reporters.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced a barrage of international criticism over the plight of the Rohingya, for not speaking out more forcefully against the violence or doing more to rein in security forces over which she has little power.

Tension between majority Buddhists and Rohingya, most of whom are denied citizenship, has simmered for decades in Rakhine, but it has exploded several times over the past few years, as old enmities, and Buddhist nationalism, surfaced with the end of decades of harsh military rule.

Murphy, who spent three days in Myanmar this week, said there were “many points of responsibility” and he wanted to see everyone follow through on commitments Suu Kyi made to uphold rights and the law in an address to the nation on Tuesday.

“There’s the elected government, there are the security forces which have authorities that don’t fall under the purview of the civilian elected government, there are local leaders and there is the broader population, among which there are many emotions and many tensions,” he said.

“Significant responsibility sits with security authorities and local officials in Rakhine state and we are looking for their cooperation to make these commitments a reality,” Murphy told reporters on a conference call from Bangkok.

Myanmar dismisses accusations of ethnic cleansing, saying it has to tackle the insurgents, whom it accuses of setting fires and attacking civilians as well as the security forces.

While the United States has urged action to halt the violence, China, which has close economic and political ties with Myanmar, has welcomed measures by the government to alleviate the situation in Rakhine state.

‘INCENTIVE FOR TERRORISTS’

Murphy said the military’s response to the August insurgent attacks had been disproportionate and the country risked a terrorist backlash.

The attacks were claimed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which Murphy referred to as a “so-called group” of which little was known. It denies links to foreign militants but the government says it is connected to global terrorism.

“Whether or not this organization has ties elsewhere is not particularly germane, given the fact that it could be creating an incentive for foreign terrorists to look at a new opportunity and this is among the risks that we have shared with Burmese stakeholders,” he said.

Bangladesh was already home to some 400,000 Rohingya who fled earlier bouts of violence and persecution.

Given the “massive numbers” arriving in the past few weeks, the United Nations was expected to launch an appeal for $200 million to help them for the next six months, an official said.

“It has not been confirmed, but it is a ballpark figure, based on the information we have,” Robert D. Watkins, U.N. resident coordinator in Bangladesh, told Reuters in an interview in Dhaka.

Watkins said the situation had not stabilized in terms of new arrivals so it was difficult to say how many people to plan for, or how long.

“We don’t want to plan a 10-year operation, obviously, because we want to maintain hope that there will be a way for negotiating a return of the population,” he said.

“We can’t plan too far in the future, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy … politically, it sends a strong signal, which we don’t want to send, which is that people are going to be here for a long time.

“And our donors are not prepared to respond to anything beyond a one-year time frame, given the massive amounts of money we are asking for.”

Aid groups in Bangladesh have warned of a public health disaster unless help is increased massively.

“We need to scale up quickly,” said Dr N. Paranietharan, the World Health Organisation representative in Bangladesh.

“If we don’t drastically improve water and sanitation we will face water-borne diseases including cholera.”

(For a graphic on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh click http://tmsnrt.rs/2xTAOon)

(Additonal reporting by Serajul Quadir in DHAKA, tommy Wikes in COX’S BAZAR; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Trapped by landmines and a creek, Rohingya languish in no-man’s land

Lieutenant Colonel Monzurul Hassan Khan, a commanding officer of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), speaks as Rohingya refugees stand outside their temporary shelters at no man's land between Bangladesh-Myanmar border, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 9, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By Krishna N. Das

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh Reuters) – Until late last month, Syed Karim grew rice and sugarcane on a strip of unclaimed land along the international border where Myanmar ends and Bangladesh begins.

On Aug. 25, the 26-year-old Rohingya Muslim man abandoned his home in a nearby Myanmar village and moved to the no-man’s land, fleeing a crackdown by the military against his community in response to militant attacks.

An estimated 370,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since that day. But Karim and thousands of his neighbors from Rohingya villages near the border face a unique predicament.

They have fled to the safety of the buffer zone along the border and are now stuck. Bangladesh security forces have instructions to not let them in, said Monzurul Hassan Khan, a Bangladesh border guard officer.

Some of the Rohingya there said they are too afraid to go back to their homes but not ready to abandon them altogether and become refugees in Bangladesh.

“I can see my house but can’t go there,” said Karim, whose Taung Pyo Let Yar village could be seen from his shack in the no-man’s land.

The top U.N. human rights official has called Myanmar’s operations against the Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and the Security Council is to meet behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

The 40-acre (16.2-hectare) buffer zone, about the size of 40 soccer pitches, is strung along the border, with a barbed wire fence on the Myanmar side and a creek on the other.

Hundreds of tarpaulin bamboo shacks have come up on what used to be a paddy field, with hills in the south. Khan said 8,000 to 10,000 Rohingya had camped there.

The UN refugee agency, which runs camps in Bangladesh, doesn’t go there because of security reasons, said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR. Tan said that they work with some NGOs to provide people in the area with plastic sheets and clothing.

Myanmar has laid landmines on its side of the border, which have wounded at least four people, Bangladesh authorities and Rohingya refugees said.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” it blames for the attacks on the security forces.

Several Bangladesh officials said they suspected that about 100 fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the insurgents who attacked Myanmar police posts and an army base on Aug. 25, have also been spotted in the border area.

TREATED IN HOSPITAL

Bangladeshi security officials said they learned from informers that suspected ARSA fighters were in the area early last week, after the Eid al-Adha festival.

The officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said 11 suspected fighters were also being treated in a hospital in Chittagong city, north of Cox’s Bazar, which is close to the border.

An ARSA spokesman denied that any of its fighters were using the no-man’s land to launch attacks and said none of its fighters were in Bangladesh.

Mostafa Kamal Uddin, Bangladesh’s home secretary, said he did not have information about the presence of Rohingya militants in Bangladesh.

Karim and other Rohingya people, mostly from the border villages, said they started fleeing to the buffer zone after the Aug. 25 attacks.

Khan, the border guard officer, said their numbers swelled on Aug. 27. “We kept hearing gunshots and also saw a fire and smoke on their side of the border,” Khan said.

He pointed to two brown patches of burned trees in Taung Pyo Let Yar village from his operations base on a hilltop in Bangladesh’s Gundum village near the border.

His men with automatic rifles kept watch as Rohingya children waded across the creek to fetch fresh water in aluminum pots and plastic bottles from a hand-pump on Bangladeshi soil.

A toddler, with the knee-deep waters rising to his neck, struggled with three plastic bottles, dropping one before turning around and picking it up and pressing forward.

In interviews at the buffer zone, where Reuters was taken by Khan, residents of three villages – Taung Pyo Let Yar, Mee Taik and Kun Thee Pin – said they were spared in the previous big military crackdown in October last year. But things changed on Aug. 25.

Mohammed Arif, a Rohingya man from Taung Pyo Let Yar village, said he fled into the woods near the village to hide when the army came. From there, he watched a mortar shell hit his two-storey house, burning it down.

He crossed over the fence on Aug. 26 with his family. Arif said he had not seen any ARSA fighters in the no-man’s land.

“In our country, Buddha worshippers treat us like a virus that needs to be eliminated. We have heard them saying, ‘No Rohingya in Myanmar.’ But we will go back,” Arif said.

(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Andrew R.C. Marshall and Ruma Paul; Writing by Paritosh Bansal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Myanmar faces mounting pressure over Rohingya refugee exodus

Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By Krishna N. Das

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Pressure mounted on Myanmar on Tuesday to end violence that has sent about 370,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh, with the United States calling for protection of civilians and Bangladesh urging safe zones to enable refugees to go home.

But China, which competes for influence in its southern neighbor with the United States, said it backed Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard “development and stability”.

The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar says its security forces are fighting Rohingya militants behind a surge of violence in Rakhine state that began on Aug. 25, and they are doing all they can to avoid harming civilians.

The government says about 400 people have been killed in the fighting, the latest in the western state.

The top U.N. human rights official denounced Myanmar on Monday for conducting a “cruel military operation” against Rohingya, branding it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The United States said the violent displacement of the Rohingya showed Myanmar’s security forces were not protecting civilians. Washington has been a staunch supporter of Myanmar’s transition from decades of harsh military rule that is being led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We call on Burmese security authorities to respect the rule of law, stop the violence, and end the displacement of civilians from all communities,” the White House said in a statement.

Myanmar government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment but the foreign ministry said shortly before the U.S. statement was issued that Myanmar was also concerned about the suffering. Its forces were carrying out their legitimate duty to restore order in response to acts of extremism.

“The government of Myanmar fully shares the concern of the international community regarding the displacement and suffering of all communities affected by the latest escalation of violence ignited by the acts of terrorism,” the ministry said in a statement.

Myanmar’s government regards Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship, even though many Rohingya families have lived there for generations.

Attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on police posts and an army base in the north of Rakhine on Aug. 25 provoked the military counter-offensive that refugees say is aimed at pushing Rohingya out of the country.

A similar but smaller wave of attacks by the same insurgents last October also sparked what critics called a heavy-handed response by the security forces that sent 87,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

Reports from refugees and rights groups paint a picture of widespread attacks on Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine by the security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who have put numerous Muslim villages to the torch.

But Myanmar authorities have denied the security forces, or Buddhist civilians, have been setting the fires, instead blaming the insurgents. Nearly 30,000 Buddhist villagers have also been displaced, they say.

‘STOP THE VIOLENCE’

The exodus to Bangladesh shows no sign of slowing with 370,000 the latest estimate, according to a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman, up from an estimate of 313,000 on the weekend.

Bangladesh was already home to about 400,000 Rohingyas.

Many refugees are hungry and sick, without shelter or clean water in the middle of the rainy season. The United Nations said 200,000 children needed urgent support.

Two emergency flights organized by the U.N. refugee agency arrived in Bangladesh with aid for about 25,000 refugees. More flights are planned with the aim of helping 120,000, a spokesman said.

Worry is also growing about conditions inside Rakhine State, with fears a hidden humanitarian crisis may be unfolding.

Myanmar has rejected a ceasefire declared by ARSA to enable the delivery of aid there, saying it did not negotiate with terrorists.

But Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Myanmar should set up safe zones to enable the refugees to go home.

“Myanmar will have to take back all Rohingya refugees who entered Bangladesh,” Hasina said on a visit to the Cox’s Bazar border district where she distributed aid.

“Myanmar has created the problem and they will have to solve it,” she said, adding: “We want peaceful relations with our neighbors, but we can’t accept any injustice.

“Stop this violence against innocent people.”

Myanmar has said those who can verify their citizenship can return but most Rohingya are stateless.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “The international community should support Myanmar in its efforts to safeguard development and stability.”

Pakistan called on Myanmar to stop making “unfulfilled promises”.

In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Pakistan said, “Discrimination, violence and acts of hatred are intolerable.”

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul and Serajul Quadir in DHAKA, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in GENEVA, Michael Martina in BEIJING; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Clarence Fernandez)

Exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh tops quarter of a million: UNHCR

Rohingya refugees carry their child as they walk through water after crossing border by boat through the Naf River in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Krishna N. Das

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – An unprecedented surge of 270,000 Rohingya has sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past two weeks, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday, as it announced a dramatic jump in the total as new pockets of people fleeing violence in Myanmar are found.

A rights group said satellite images showed about 450 buildings had been burned down in a Myanmar border town largely inhabited by Rohingya, as part of what the refugees say is a concerted effort to expel members of the Muslim minority.

Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the estimated number of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh since violence erupted on Aug. 25 had risen from 164,000 on Thursday because aid workers had found big groups of uncounted people in border areas.

“This does not necessarily reflect fresh arrivals within the past 24 hours but that we have identified more people in different areas that we were not aware of,” she said, adding that the number was an estimate and there could be some double-counting.

“The numbers are so alarming – it really means that we have to step up our response and that the situation in Myanmar has to be addressed urgently.”

The wave of refugees, many sick or wounded, has strained the resources of aid agencies and communities which are already helping hundreds of thousands displaced by previous waves of violence in Myanmar. Many have no shelter, and aid agencies are racing to provide clean water, sanitation and food.

Two days ago, UNHCR had said the worst-case scenario was 300,000 refugees.

“We need to prepare for many more to come, I am afraid,” said Shinni Kubo, the Bangladesh country manager for the agency. “We need huge financial resources. This is unprecedented. This is dramatic. It will continue for weeks and weeks.”

While most refugees are coming on foot many are also braving the sea. At least 300 boats carrying Rohingya arrived in the Bangladesh border district of Cox’s Bazar on Wednesday, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.

The latest flight of Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar began two weeks ago after Rohingya insurgents attacked security force posts in Rakhine State. That triggered an army counter-offensive in which at least 400 people were killed.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” it blames for the attacks on the security forces and for burning homes and civilian deaths.

It says about 30,000 non-Muslims have been displaced by the violence.

The 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar have long complained of persecution. They are denied citizenship and regarded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Rohigya refugees are seen waiting for boat to cross the border through the Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar, September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Rohigya refugees are seen waiting for boat to cross the border through the Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar, September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

BURNED BUILDINGS

There is very limited access to the north of Rakhine State and few if any independent witnesses so the situation for Rohingya still there is a major concern, with fears a humanitarian crisis could be unfolding there too.

“What we know is what people are saying as they come across, and what they’re saying now, given this been going on since Aug. 25, is they are in an absolutely desperate state,” said Leonard Doyle of the IOM.

“They say living out in open, without protection from the tropical sun with their children, without enough food to eat.”

Bangladesh has proposed creating “safe zones” run by aid groups for Rohingya in Myanmar. But it would seem the plan is unlikely to be accepted there.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said satellite images taken last Saturday showed hundreds of burned buildings in Maungdaw, a district capital in Rakhine State, in areas primarily inhabited by Rohingya.

“If safety cannot even be found in area capitals, then no place may be safe,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.

A Myanmar reporter in the north of the state said he had got reports from residents of an area called Rathedaung that six villages had been torched and there had also been shooting in the area. It was not clear who was responsible.

Several thousand people held a protest in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, after Friday prayers against the crackdown on the Rohingya.

Protests were also held in Indonesia and Malaysia, also Muslim-majority countries. Scores of people staged protests outside the Myanmar embassies in Tokyo and Manila.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the Rohingya issue had to be resolved “at the source” and he was considering raising it when he holds talks with U.S. President Donald Trump next week.

Earlier, the head of Malaysia’s coastguard said it would not turn away Rohingya and was willing to provide them temporary shelter, although it is unlikely any refugees would travel hundreds of kilometers south by sea during the monsoon season.

The rainy season ends in late November, bringing calmer weather when more boats are likely to head for Southeast Asia.

The coastguard said it would watch waters near its Indian Ocean border with Thailand in anticipation of Rohingya arriving.

Thailand has also said it is preparing to receive people fleeing Myanmar, while Singapore said it was ready to help with the humanitarian effort.

A Rohingya refugee girl drinks river water as she waits for boat to cross the border through Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar, September 7, 2017.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

A Rohingya refugee girl drinks river water as she waits for boat to cross the border through Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar, September 7, 2017.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta, Rozanna Latiff ad Liz Lee in Kuala Lumpur, Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Residents shield Christians in bold exodus from Philippines city

Soldiers onboard military trucks ride along the main street as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – More than 160 civilians walked out of the besieged Philippines city of Marawi just after dawn on Saturday, deceiving Islamist fighters they encountered by hiding the identity of the many Christians among them.

The audacious exodus came after text message warnings that a major assault by Philippines aircraft and ground troops was imminent in the center of the southern city, where some 250 militants and more than 2,000 civilians remain trapped.

“We saved ourselves,” said Norodin Alonto Lucman, a well-known former politician and traditional clan leader who sheltered 71 people, including more than 50 Christians, in his home during the battle that erupted on May 23 in the town of more than 200,000 on the southern island of Mindanao.

“There’s this plan to bomb the whole city if ISIS don’t agree to the demands of the government,” he said, referring to local and foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State.

Many evacuees told Reuters they had received text messages warning of a bombing campaign.

“We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out,” said Leny Paccon, who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. “When I got the text, immediately we go out … about 7 o’clock.”

By then, Lucman and his guests had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags and moving briskly.

“As we walked, others joined us,” he told reporters. “We had to pass through a lot of [militant] snipers.”

Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said Jaime Daligdig, a Christian construction worker.

“We shouted ‘Allahu akbar’,” he told Reuters, adding that thanks to that Muslim rallying cry they were allowed to pass.

Those who fled included teachers from Dansalan College, a protestant school torched on the first day of the battle.

Christians have been killed and taken hostage by the militants, a mix of local fighters from the Maute Group and other Islamist outfits, as well as foreigners who joined the cause under the Islamic State banner.

The vast majority of Filipinos are Christian, but Mindanao has a larger proportion of Muslims and Islam is followed by the vast majority in Marawi City.

ROTTING BODIES, DEBRIS

Lucman said that many of those trapped were on the verge of starvation, which also gave them the courage to leave.

He described a scene of devastation in the town center, where the streets were strewn with rotting bodies and debris. “I almost puked as we were walking,” Lucman said, estimating that there were more than 1,000 dead.

Official government estimates recorded 120 militants, 38 government forces and 20 civilians as dead on Saturday.

Lucman and Paccon said militants had knocked on their doors while they sheltered the terrified Christians. They shooed them away saying there were women and children inside.

Adding to the anxiety, both said they were within 100 meters (320 feet) of militant command posts. Although the Philippines military knew civilians remained in their homes, ordnance exploded nearby repeatedly over the past week.

Resident Asnaira Asis said militants knocked on her door too, offering money or food if she handed over her 11-year-old son. “They wanted him to be a fighter,” she told Reuters after joining the morning exodus. “I said no.”

After an impromptu ceasefire as the civilians evacuated, bombing and ground skirmishes continued on Saturday, and FA50 fighter jets dropped bombs on the town center.

Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the conflict would be over soon but he gave no operational plans. He said there were 250 militants still in the town, far more than the 20-30 cited by the military on Friday.

“They can still put up a good fight. That’s why it’s giving us difficulty in clearing the area,” he told a news conference.

Lorenzana said there was still a big cohort of foreign fighters in Marawi.

Officials have said militants from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco joined the battle, raising concerns that Islamic State is seeking to establish a regional foothold there.

(Editing by John Chalmers and Helen Popper)

Israel bans Passover holiday exodus to Egypt’s Sinai, citing attack threats

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel took the unusual step on Monday of barring its citizens from crossing into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, saying the threat of attacks in the area inspired by Islamic State and other jihadi groups was high.

Minutes after the ban was announced, the Israeli military said a rocket was launched from the Sinai and struck southern Israel, causing no injuries.

The ban will be in effect at the Taba crossing at least until April 18, the end of the Jewish holiday of Passover that begins at sundown on Monday, said a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Thousands of Israelis usually cross the land border with Egypt during the holiday to visit resorts and beaches on the Sinai Red Sea coast.

Egypt declared a three-month state of emergency on Sunday after bombings of Coptic churches in Alexandria and the Nile delta city of Tanta which killed more than 40 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for both incidents and warned of future attacks.

In the thinly populated Sinai, an Islamist insurgency has gained pace since Egypt’s military toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and militants have carried out deadly cross-border attacks on Israel in recent years.

Militants in the Sinai aim, the statement said, “to carry out terrorist attacks against tourists in the Sinai, including Israelis, in the immediate future”.

The statement urged Israelis already in the Sinai to return home immediately, reiterating a travel advisory that Israel’s Anti-Terrorism Directorate issued on March 27.

Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche)