Exclusive: U.S. team in refugee camps investigating atrocities against Rohingya

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh at Sabrang near Teknaf, Bangladesh November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Jason Szep, Matt Spetalnick and Zeba Siddiqui

WASHINGTON/COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The U.S. government is conducting an intensive examination of alleged atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, documenting accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other possible offenses in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The undertaking, led by the State Department, has involved more than a thousand interviews of Rohingya men and women in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled after a military crackdown last year in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, two U.S. officials said. The work is modeled on a U.S. forensic investigation of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a U.S. declaration of genocide that culminated in economic sanctions against the Sudanese government.

The interviews were conducted in March and April by about 20 investigators with backgrounds in international law and criminal justice, including some who worked on tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

The information will be analyzed in Washington and documented in a report to be sent to the State Department’s leadership in May or early June, the officials said. It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will publicly release the findings, or whether they will be used to justify new sanctions on the Myanmar government or a recommendation for international prosecution.

“The purpose of this investigation is to contribute to justice processes, including community awareness raising, international advocacy efforts, and community-based reconciliation efforts, as well as possible investigations, truth-seeking efforts, or other efforts for justice and accountability,” said a document used by the investigators in the sprawling refugee camps and reviewed by Reuters.

Three U.S. officials in Washington and several people involved in the investigation on the ground in Bangladesh disclosed details of the fact-finding operation to Reuters.

A State Department official, asked to confirm the specifics of the investigation conducted in the refugee camps as reported by Reuters, said “the program details are accurate.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government was using all available information and a wide range of tools, but added: “We cannot get ahead of the deliberative, policymaking process.”

As of publication, the Myanmar government and military had not responded to questions from Reuters. Myanmar has said its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.

The interviewers in the camps asked the refugees basic demographic questions, the date the person left Myanmar, and to recount their experiences during the wave of violence unleashed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State by the Myanmar military and local Buddhist residents.

The investigators also asked refugees to describe the battalions and weaponry used by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State during operations against the Rohingya, said one person involved with the investigation in the camps, which are located in the Cox’s Bazar district in southern Bangladesh. The investigators have received names of individual perpetrators and the identities of specific battalions allegedly involved, this person said.

A second person involved in the project on the ground said 1,025 refugees have been interviewed and the assignment may include a second phase focused on military units.

Zohra Khatun, 35, a Rohingya refugee in the camps, said she told investigators that soldiers waged a campaign of violence and harassment in her village in Rakhine State starting last August. They made arrests and shot several people, driving her and others to flee, she said.

“One military officer grabbed me by the throat and tried to take me,” she told Reuters, clutching her shirt collar to demonstrate. The military, she said, burned homes in the village, including hers.

The investigation coincides with a debate inside the U.S. government and on Capitol Hill over whether the Trump administration has done enough to hold Myanmar’s military to account for brutal violence against the largely stateless Rohingya.

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Phot

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

The Rohingya are a small Muslim minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Though they have been present in what’s now Myanmar for generations, many Burmese consider them to be interlopers. Violence against them has increased in recent years as the country has made a partial shift to democratic governance.

In November, following the lead of the United Nations and the European Union, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Rohingya crisis constituted “ethnic cleansing,” a designation that raised the possibility of additional sanctions against Myanmar’s military commanders and increased pressure on its civilian leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar government has denied the accusations.

The United States responded in December by imposing targeted sanctions on one Myanmar general and threatening to penalize others. Washington has also scaled back already-limited military ties with Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began. Human rights groups and Democratic lawmakers in Washington have urged the Republican White House to widen sanctions and designate the violence as “crimes against humanity,” a legal term that can set the stage for charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“No decisions have been made on that front, but it’s something being looked at very carefully,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters.

A Reuters investigation published in February provided the first independent confirmation of what had taken place in the village of Inn Din, where 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys were hacked to death by Rakhine Buddhist villagers or shot by security force members. The story was based on accounts not only from Rohingya refugees but also from soldiers, police officers and Buddhist locals who admitted to participating in the bloodshed.

Pictures obtained by Reuters showed the men and boys with their hands tied behind their backs and their bodies in a shallow grave. Two Reuters journalists were jailed while reporting the story and remain in prison in Yangon, where they face up to 14 years in jail on possible charges of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.

So far, there has been resistance by lawyers in the White House and State Department to adopt the terms “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” in describing deaths of Rohingya in Myanmar, the U.S. officials said.

The State Department itself has been divided over how to characterize or interpret the violence against the Rohingya, the officials said.

The East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, staffed largely by career diplomats and representing the view of the embassy in Myanmar, has held at times “to a success narrative” on Myanmar since the lifting of sanctions was announced in October 2016 and the strong public role played by the U.S. government in the historic 2012 opening of the country after decades of military rule, one official said.

Diplomats in Yangon have also been reluctant to jeopardize Washington’s relationship with Suu Kyi, a democratic icon who has faced criticism for failing to do more to rein in the violence against the Rohingya. Some senior U.S. officials still believe Suu Kyi remains the best hope for a more democratic Myanmar, one official said. “They are reluctant to upset that relationship.”

That contrasts with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, based in Washington, which has pushed for tougher sanctions, the officials said. Bridging that gap has been made more difficult because the State Department under President Donald Trump has yet to fill many important diplomatic positions, the officials said.

Officials described the process in the refugee camps of documenting the abuses as rigorous. Each interview was coded with key words according to the alleged crime, such as killing, rape, sexual violence and lynching. Different categories of alleged perpetrator also have codes – from civilians to insurgents, Myanmar military personnel and police.

“After the 1,000 interviews and statistical analysis, we can draw certain conclusions about the perpetrators of crime and patterns of crime,” one official said.

The official said one possible result from the documentation of abuses against the Rohingya could be a vote by the United Nations General Assembly to establish an international body to investigate the most serious crimes committed against the Rohingya, similar to what it’s done with Syria.

The State Department did not respond to questions about divisions within the administration over how to characterize the violence and criticism that the administration was too slow in acting to halt abuses.

Subiya Khatun, 29, who fled her Rakhine home in September and reported seeing three dead bodies in a canal on her way to the Bangladesh border, said she hoped for justice and a safe return to Myanmar.

“They said they have come from America. ‘This investigation will be used for your help,'” she said she was told by the people who interviewed her in the camps. “If Allah wishes, we will get justice and our demands will be fulfilled.”

(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin in Cox’s Bazar. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

U.N. expert says Myanmar government employs starvation policy in Rakhine

REFILE - CORRECTING TITLE Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee (R) gives her report next to the Chairperson of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Myanmarese government appears to be pursuing a policy of starvation in Rakhine state to force out the remaining Muslim Rohingya population, a U.N. investigator said on Monday.

The military has also started new offensives in Kachin and Kayin states, Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Lee said atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority “bear the hallmarks of genocide”. She called for the council to set up an entity in Bangladesh, where more than 650,000 Rohingya have fled, to collect evidence for potential trials.

Myanmar’s envoy Htin Lynn rejected Lee’s remarks and called for the council to fire her.

Lee said the violence in Rakhine had eclipsed anything seen in recent years in Myanmar, where the government has also fought insurgents in Shan, Kayin and Kachin states.

She had received information that the military mounted new ground offensives last week using heavy artillery in Kachin’s gold and amber-mining area of Tanai.

Myanmar’s military had also advanced into Mutraw District in Kayin State, an area controlled by the Karen National Union, despite a ceasefire agreement, she said.

“This ceasefire violation led to 1,500 villagers from 15 villages having to flee. I am very concerned about these continuing offensives; the path to peace is through inclusive political dialogue, and not through military force,” she said.

In Rakhine state, Myanmar appeared to be pursuing a policy of forced starvation to make life there unsustainable for the Rohingya, Lee said.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of a fact-finding mission on Myanmar set up by the council, said his team had received a flood of allegations against the security forces in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and elsewhere.

“All the information collected by the Fact-Finding Mission so far further points to violence of an extremely cruel nature, including against women,” he said.

“The Fact-Finding Mission has met with women who showed fresh and deep bite marks on their faces and bodies sustained during acts of sexual violence.”

Myanmar’s ambassador Lynn did not respond to the criticism in detail but told the council it was wrong to assert that Myanmar’s leadership remained indifferent to the allegations.

“Our leadership and the government shall never tolerate such crimes. We are ready to take action, where there is the evidence,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Turkey summons Dutch diplomat over Christian Armenian ‘genocide’ decision

A demonstrator holds a Turkish flag outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam where a crowd gathered to await the arrival of the Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, who decided to travel to Rotterdam by land after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's flight was barred from landing by the Dutch government, in Rotterdam, Netherlands March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey summoned the Dutch charge d’affaires on Friday to complain about the Netherlands parliament recognizing the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the Turkish foreign ministry said.

The parliamentary motion, which the Dutch government said would not become official policy, risks further worsening relations already strained over the Netherlands barring Turkish ministers from campaigning for a 2017 referendum that gave President Tayyip Erdogan more power.

A second motion called for a high-level Dutch government official to attend Armenia’s genocide remembrance day on April 24. In the past, the Dutch ambassador has attended.

Turkey accepts many Christian Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said the Dutch motions were “baseless decisions”. Nearly a dozen other EU countries have passed similar resolutions.

Talks to repair relations between the two countries have broken down and the Netherlands recalled its ambassador on Feb. 5.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Robin Pomeroy)

Special Report: How Myanmar forces burned, looted and killed in a remote village

Rehana Khatun, whose husband Mohammed Nur was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture with her child at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 19, 2018. Picture taken January 19, 2018.

By Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski

INN DIN, Myanmar (Reuters) – Bound together, the 10 Rohingya Muslim captives watched their Myanmar Buddhist neighbors dig a shallow grave. Soon afterwards, on the morning of Sept. 2, all 10 lay dead. At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops, two of the gravediggers said.

“One grave for 10 people,” said Soe Chay, 55, a retired soldier from Inn Din’s Rakhine Buddhist community who said he helped dig the pit and saw the killings. The soldiers shot each man two or three times, he said. “When they were being buried, some were still making noises. Others were already dead.”

A scrap of fabric is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017.

A scrap of fabric is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017. REUTERS

The killings in the coastal village of Inn Din marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August. None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October.

The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rapes and killings aimed at rubbing them out of existence in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing. Myanmar says its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. But most Burmese consider them to be unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh; the army refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis.” In recent years, sectarian tensions have risen and the government has confined more than 100,000 Rohingya in camps where they have limited access to food, medicine and education.

Reuters has pieced together what happened in Inn Din in the days leading up to the killing of the 10 Rohingya – eight men and two high school students in their late teens.

Until now, accounts of the violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state have been provided only by its victims. The Reuters reconstruction draws for the first time on interviews with Buddhist villagers who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims.

This account also marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel themselves. Members of the paramilitary police gave Reuters insider descriptions of the operation to drive out the Rohingya from Inn Din, confirming that the military played the lead role in the campaign.

PHOTOGRAPHS FROM A MASSACRE

The slain men’s families, now sheltering in Bangladesh refugee camps, identified the victims through photographs shown to them by Reuters. The dead men were fishermen, shopkeepers, the two teenage students and an Islamic teacher.

Three photographs, provided to Reuters by a Buddhist village elder, capture key moments in the massacre at Inn Din, from the Rohingya men’s detention by soldiers in the early evening of Sept. 1 to their execution shortly after 10 a.m. on Sept. 2. Two photos – one taken the first day, the other on the day of the killings – show the 10 captives lined up in a row, kneeling. The final photograph shows the men’s bloodied bodies piled in the shallow grave.

 

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel in Inn Din village September 1, 2017. Handout via REUTERS

The Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters. The reporters, Burmese citizens Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were detained on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine.

Then, on Jan. 10, the military issued a statement that confirmed portions of what Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues were preparing to report, acknowledging that 10 Rohingya men were massacred in the village. It confirmed that Buddhist villagers attacked some of the men with swords and soldiers shot the others dead.

The statement coincided with an application to the court by prosecutors to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, which dates back to the time of colonial British rule. The charges carry a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

But the military’s version of events is contradicted in important respects by accounts given to Reuters by Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim witnesses. The military said the 10 men belonged to a group of 200 “terrorists” that attacked security forces. Soldiers decided to kill the men, the army said, because intense fighting in the area made it impossible to transfer them to police custody. The army said it would take action against those involved.

Buddhist villagers interviewed for this article reported no attack by a large number of insurgents on security forces in Inn Din. And Rohingya witnesses told Reuters that soldiers plucked the 10 from among hundreds of men, women and children who had sought safety on a nearby beach.

Scores of interviews with Rakhine Buddhist villagers, soldiers, paramilitary police, Rohingya Muslims and local administrators further revealed:

– The military and paramilitary police organized Buddhist residents of Inn Din and at least two other villages to torch Rohingya homes, more than a dozen Buddhist villagers said. Eleven Buddhist villagers said Buddhists committed acts of violence, including killings. The government and army have repeatedly blamed Rohingya insurgents for burning villages and homes.

– An order to “clear” Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets was passed down the command chain from the military, said three paramilitary police officers speaking on condition of anonymity and a fourth police officer at an intelligence unit in the regional capital Sittwe. Security forces wore civilian clothes to avoid detection during raids, one of the paramilitary police officers said.

– Some members of the paramilitary police looted Rohingya property, including cows and motorcycles, in order to sell it, according to village administrator Maung Thein Chay and one of the paramilitary police officers.

– Operations in Inn Din were led by the army’s 33rd Light Infantry Division, supported by the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion, according to four police officers, all of them members of the battalion.

POTENTIAL CRIMINAL CASES

Michael G. Karnavas, a U.S. lawyer based in The Hague who has worked on cases at international criminal tribunals, said evidence that the military had organized Buddhist civilians to commit violence against Rohingya “would be the closest thing to a smoking gun in establishing not just intent, but even specific genocidal intent, since the attacks seem designed to destroy the Rohingya or at least a significant part of them.”

Evidence of the execution of men in government custody also could be used to build a case of crimes against humanity against military commanders, Karnavas said, if it could be shown that it was part of a “widespread or systematic” campaign targeting the Rohingya population.

Kevin Jon Heller, a University of London law professor who served as a legal associate for convicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, said an order to clear villages by military command was “unequivocally the crime against humanity of forcible transfer.”

Shuna Khatu, 30, whose husband Habizu was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture at Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018

Shuna Khatu, 30, whose husband Habizu was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018 REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In December, the United States imposed sanctions on the army officer who had been in charge of Western Command troops in Rakhine, Major General Maung Maung Soe. So far, however, Myanmar has not faced international sanctions over the violence.

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has disappointed many former supporters in the West by not speaking out against the army’s actions. They had hoped the election of her National League for Democracy party in 2015 would bring democratic reform and an opening of the country. Instead, critics say, Suu Kyi is in thrall to the generals who freed her from house arrest in 2010.

Asked about the evidence Reuters has uncovered about the massacre, government spokesman Zaw Htay said, “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.” If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said. “And then if we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to our existing law.”

When told that paramilitary police officers had said they received orders to “clear” Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets, he replied, “We have to verify. We have to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs and Myanmar police forces.” Asked about the allegations of looting by paramilitary police officers, he said the police would investigate.

He expressed surprise when told that Buddhist villagers had confessed to burning Rohingya homes, then added, “We recognize that many, many different allegations are there, but we need to verify who did it. It is very difficult in the current situation.”

Zaw Htay defended the military operation in Rakhine. “The international community needs to understand who did the first terrorist attacks. If that kind of terrorist attack took place in European countries, in the United States, in London, New York, Washington, what would the media say?”

NEIGHBOR TURNS ON NEIGHBOR

Inn Din lies between the Mayu mountain range and the Bay of Bengal, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe. The settlement is made up of a scattering of hamlets around a school, clinic and Buddhist monastery. Buddhist homes cluster in the northern part of the village. For many years there had been tensions between the Buddhists and their Muslim neighbors, who accounted for almost 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 people in the village. But the two communities had managed to co-exist, fishing the coastal waters and cultivating rice in the paddies.

In October 2016, Rohingya militants attacked three police posts in northern Rakhine – the beginning of a new insurgency. After the attacks, Rohingya in Inn Din said many Buddhists stopped hiring them as farmhands and home help. The Buddhists said the Rohingya stopped showing up for work.

On Aug. 25 last year, the rebels struck again, hitting 30 police posts and an army base. The closest attack was just 4 km to the north. In Inn Din, several hundred fearful Buddhists took refuge in the monastery in the center of the village, more than a dozen of their number said. Inn Din’s Buddhist night watchman San Thein, 36, said Buddhist villagers feared being “swallowed up” by their Muslim neighbors. A Buddhist elder said all Rohingya, “including children,” were part of the insurgency and therefore “terrorists.”

On Aug. 27, about 80 troops from Myanmar’s 33rd Light Infantry Division arrived in Inn Din, nine Buddhist villagers said. Two paramilitary police officers and Soe Chay, the retired soldier, said the troops belonged to the 11th infantry regiment of this division. The army officer in charge told villagers they must cook for the soldiers and act as lookouts at night, Soe Chay said. The officer promised his troops would protect Buddhist villagers from their Rohingya neighbors. Five Buddhist villagers said the officer told them they could volunteer to join security operations. Young volunteers would need their parents’ permission to join the troops, however.

The army found willing participants among Inn Din’s Buddhist “security group,” nine members of the organization and two other villagers said. This informal militia was formed after violence broke out in 2012 between Rakhine’s Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, sparked by reports of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men. Myanmar media reported at the time that the three were sentenced to death by a district court.

Inn Din’s security group built watch huts around the Buddhist part of the village, and its members took turns to stand guard. Its ranks included Buddhist firefighters, school teachers, students and unemployed young men. They were useful to the military because they knew the local geography, said Inn Din’s Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay.

Most of the group’s 80 to 100 men armed themselves with machetes and sticks. They also had a handful of guns, according to one member. Some wore green fatigue-style clothing they called “militia suits.”

ORGANIZING THE ARSON ATTACKS

In the days that followed the 33rd Light Infantry’s arrival, soldiers, police and Buddhist villagers burned most of the homes of Inn Din’s Rohingya Muslims, a dozen Buddhist residents said.

Two of the paramilitary police officers, both members of the 8th Security Police Battalion, said their battalion raided Rohingya hamlets with soldiers from the newly arrived 33rd Light Infantry. One of the police officers said he received verbal orders from his commander to “go and clear” areas where Rohingya lived, which he took to mean to burn them.

The second police officer described taking part in several raids on villages north of Inn Din. The raids involved at least 20 soldiers and between five and seven police, he said. A military captain or major led the soldiers, while a police captain oversaw the police team. The purpose of the raids was to deter the Rohingya from returning.

“If they have a place to live, if they have food to eat, they can carry out more attacks,” he said. “That’s why we burned their houses, mainly for security reasons.”

Soldiers and paramilitary police wore civilian shirts and shorts to blend in with the villagers, according to the second police officer and Inn Din’s Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay. If the media identified the involvement of security personnel, the police officer explained, “we would have very big problems.”

A police spokesman, Colonel Myo Thu Soe, said he knew of no instances of security forces torching villages or wearing civilian clothing. Nor was there any order to “go and clear” or “set fire” to villages. “This is very much impossible,” he told Reuters. “If there are things like that, it should be reported officially, and it has to be investigated officially.”

“As you’ve told me about these matters now, we will scrutinize and check back,” he added. “What I want to say for now is that as for the security forces, there are orders and instructions and step-by-step management, and they have to follow them. So, I don’t think these things happened.”

The army did not respond to a request for comment.

A medical assistant at the Inn Din village clinic, Aung Myat Tun, 20, said he took part in several raids. “Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” he said. “The village elders put monks’ robes on the end of sticks to make the torches and soaked them with kerosene. We couldn’t bring phones. The police said they will shoot and kill us if they see any of us taking photos.”

The night watchman San Thein, a leading member of the village security group, said troops first swept through the Muslim hamlets. Then, he said, the military sent in Buddhist villagers to burn the houses.

“We got the kerosene for free from the village market after the kalars ran away,” he said, using a Burmese slur for people from South Asia.

A Rakhine Buddhist youth said he thought he heard the sound of a child inside one Rohingya home that was burned. A second villager said he participated in burning a Rohingya home that was occupied.

“I STARTED HACKING HIM WITH A SWORD”

Soe Chay, the retired soldier who was to dig the grave for the 10 Rohingya men, said he participated in one killing. He told Reuters that troops discovered three Rohingya men and a woman hiding beside a haystack in Inn Din on Aug. 28. One of the men had a smartphone that could be used to take incriminating pictures.

The soldiers told Soe Chay to “do whatever you want to them,” he said. They pointed out the man with the phone and told him to stand up. “I started hacking him with a sword, and a soldier shot him when he fell down.”

Similar violence was playing out across a large part of northern Rakhine, dozens of Buddhist and Rohingya residents said.

Data from the U.N. Operational Satellite Applications Programme shows scores of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state burned in an area stretching 110 km. New York-based Human Rights Watch says more than 350 villages were torched over the three months from Aug. 25, according to an analysis of satellite imagery.

In the village of Laungdon, some 65 km north of Inn Din, Thar Nge, 38, said he was asked by police and local officials to join a Buddhist security group. “The army invited us to burn the kalar village at Hpaw Ti Kaung,” he said, adding that four villagers and nearly 20 soldiers and police were involved in the operation. “Police shot inside the village so all the villagers fled and then we set fire to it. Their village was burned because police believed the villagers supported Rohingya militants – that’s why they cleaned it with fire.”

A Buddhist student from Ta Man Tha village, 15 km north of Laungdon, said he too participated in the burning of Rohingya homes. An army officer sought 30 volunteers to burn “kalar” villages, said the student. Nearly 50 volunteered and gathered fuel from motorbikes and from a market.

“They separated us into several groups. We were not allowed to enter the village directly. We had to surround it and approach the village that way. The army would shoot gunfire ahead of us and then the army asked us to enter,” he said.

After the Rohingya had fled Inn Din, Buddhist villagers took their property, including chickens and goats, Buddhist residents told Reuters. But the most valuable goods, mostly motorcycles and cattle, were collected by members of the 8th Security Police Battalion and sold, said the first police officer and Inn Din village administrator Maung Thein Chay. Maung Thein Chay said the commander of the 8th Battalion, Thant Zin Oo, struck a deal with Buddhist businessmen from other parts of Rakhine state and sold them cattle. The police officer said he had stolen four cows from Rohingya villagers, only for Thant Zin Oo to snatch them away.

Reached by phone, Thant Zin Oo did not comment. Colonel Myo Thu Soe, the police spokesman, said the police would investigate the allegations of looting.

THE VICTIMS ARE CHOSEN

By Sept. 1, several hundred Rohingya from Inn Din were sheltering at a makeshift camp on a nearby beach. They erected tarpaulin shelters to shield themselves from heavy rain.

Among this group were the 10 Rohingya men who would be killed the next morning. Reuters has identified all of the 10 by speaking to witnesses among Inn Din’s Buddhist community and Rohingya relatives and witnesses tracked down in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Five of the men, Dil Mohammed, 35, Nur Mohammed, 29, Shoket Ullah, 35, Habizu, 40, and Shaker Ahmed, 45, were fishermen or fish sellers. The wealthiest of the group, Abul Hashim, 25, ran a store selling nets and machine parts to fishermen and farmers. Abdul Majid, a 45-year-old father of eight, ran a small shop selling areca nut wrapped in betel leaves, commonly chewed like tobacco. Abulu, 17, and Rashid Ahmed, 18, were high school students. Abdul Malik, 30, was an Islamic teacher.

According to the statement released by the army on Jan. 10, security forces had gone to a coastal area where they “were attacked by about 200 Bengalis with sticks and swords.” The statement said that “as the security forces opened fire into the sky, the Bengalis dispersed and ran away. Ten of them were arrested.”

Three Buddhist and more than a dozen Rohingya witnesses contradict this version of events. Their accounts differ from one another in some details. The Buddhists spoke of a confrontation between a small group of Rohingya men and some soldiers near the beach. But there is unanimity on a crucial point: None said the military had come under a large-scale attack in Inn Din.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay referred Reuters to the army’s statement of Jan. 10 and declined to elaborate further. The army did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rohingya witnesses, who were on or near the beach, said Islamic teacher Abdul Malik had gone back to his hamlet with his sons to collect food and bamboo for shelter. When he returned, a group of at least seven soldiers and armed Buddhist villagers were following him, these witnesses said. Abdul Malik walked towards the watching Rohingya Muslims unsteadily, with blood dripping from his head. Some witnesses said they had seen one of the armed men strike the back of Abdul Malik’s head with a knife.

Then the military beckoned with their guns to the crowd of roughly 300 Rohingya to assemble in the paddies, these witnesses said. The soldiers and the Rohingya, hailing from different parts of Myanmar, spoke different languages. Educated villagers translated for their fellow Rohingya.

“I could not hear much, but they pointed toward my husband and some other men to get up and come forward,” said Rehana Khatun, 22, the wife of Nur Mohammed, one of the 10 who were later slain. “We heard they wanted the men for a meeting. The military asked the rest of us to return to the beach.”

FRESH CLOTHES AND A LAST MEAL

Soldiers held and questioned the 10 men in a building at Inn Din’s school for a night, the military said. Rashid Ahmed and Abulu had studied there alongside Rakhine Buddhist students until the attacks by Rohingya rebels in October 2016. Schools were shut temporarily, disrupting the pair’s final year.

“I just remember him sitting there and studying, and it was always amazing to me because I am not educated,” said Rashid Ahmed’s father, farmer Abdu Shakur, 50. “I would look at him reading. He would be the first one in the family to be educated.”

A photograph, taken on the evening the men were detained, shows the two Rohingya students and the eight older men kneeling on a path beside the village clinic, most of them shirtless. They were stripped when first detained, a dozen Rohingya witnesses said. It isn’t clear why. That evening, Buddhist villagers said, the men were “treated” to a last meal of beef. They were provided with fresh clothing.

On Sept. 2, the men were taken to scrubland north of the village, near a graveyard for Buddhist residents, six Buddhist villagers said. The spot is backed by a hill crested with trees. There, on their knees, the 10 were photographed again and questioned by security personnel about the disappearance of a local Buddhist farmer named Maung Ni, according to a Rakhine elder who said he witnessed the interrogation.

Reuters was not able to establish what happened to Maung Ni. According to Buddhist neighbors, the farmer went missing after leaving home early on Aug. 25 to tend his cattle. Several Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya villagers told Reuters they believed he had been killed, but they knew of no evidence connecting any of the 10 men to his disappearance. The army said in its Jan. 10 statement that “Bengali terrorists” had killed Maung Ni, but did not identify the perpetrators.

Two of the men pictured behind the Rohingya prisoners in the photograph taken on the morning of Sept. 2 belong to the 8th Security Police Battalion. Reuters confirmed the identities of the two men from their Facebook pages and by visiting them in person.

One of the two officers, Aung Min, a police recruit from Yangon, stands directly behind the captives. He looks at the camera as he holds a weapon. The other officer, police Captain Moe Yan Naing, is the figure on the top right. He walks with his rifle over his shoulder.

The day after the two Reuters reporters were arrested in December, Myanmar’s government also announced that Moe Yan Naing had been arrested and was being investigated under the 1923 Official Secrets Act.

Aung Min, who is not facing legal action, declined to speak to Reuters.

VENGEANCE FOR A MISSING FARMER

Three Buddhist youths said they watched from a hut as the 10 Rohingya captives were led up a hill by soldiers towards the site of their deaths.

One of the gravediggers, retired soldier Soe Chay, said Maung Ni’s sons were invited by the army officer in charge of the squad to strike the first blows.

The first son beheaded the Islamic teacher, Abdul Malik, according to Soe Chay. The second son hacked another of the men in the neck.

“After the brothers sliced them both with swords, the squad fired with guns. Two to three shots to one person,” said Soe Chay. A second gravedigger, who declined to be identified, confirmed that soldiers had shot some of the men.

In its Jan. 10 statement, the military said the two brothers and a third villager had “cut the Bengali terrorists” with swords and then, in the chaos, four members of the security forces had shot the captives. “Action will be taken against the villagers who participated in the case and the members of security forces who broke the Rules of Engagement under the law,” the statement said. It didn’t spell out those rules.

Tun Aye, one of the sons of Maung Ni, has been detained on murder charges, his lawyer said on Jan. 13. Contacted by Reuters on Feb. 8, the lawyer declined to comment further. Reuters was unable to reach the other brother.

In October, Inn Din locals pointed two Reuters reporters towards an area of brush behind the hill where they said the killings took place. The reporters discovered a newly cut trail leading to soft, recently disturbed earth littered with bones. Some of the bones were entangled with scraps of clothing and string that appeared to match the cord that is seen binding the captives’ wrists in the photographs. The immediate area was marked by the smell of death.

Reuters showed photographs of the site to three forensic experts: Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights; Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations; and Luis Fondebrider, president of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who investigated the graves of those killed under Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. All observed human remains, including the thoracic part of a spinal column, ribs, scapula, femur and tibia. Pounder said he couldn’t rule out the presence of animal bones as well.

The Rakhine Buddhist elder provided Reuters reporters with a photograph which shows the aftermath of the execution. In it, the 10 Rohingya men are wearing the same clothing as in the previous photo and are tied to each other with the same yellow cord, piled into a small hole in the earth, blood pooling around them. Abdul Malik, the Islamic teacher, appears to have been beheaded. Abulu, the student, has a gaping wound in his neck. Both injuries appear consistent with Soe Chay’s account.

Forensic pathologist Fondebrider reviewed this picture. He said injuries visible on two of the bodies were consistent with “the action of a machete or something sharp that was applied on the throat.”

Some family members did not know for sure that the men had been killed until Reuters returned to their shelters in Bangladesh in January.

“I can’t explain what I feel inside. My husband is dead,” said Rehana Khatun, wife of Nur Mohammed. “My husband is gone forever. I don’t want anything else, but I want justice for his death.”

In Inn Din, the Buddhist elder explained why he chose to share evidence of the killings with Reuters. “I want to be transparent on this case. I don’t want it to happen like that in future.”

 

(Reporting by Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski; editing by Janet McBride, Martin Howell and Alex Richardson.)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

Court rules Nazi death camp ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, 96, must go to jail

Oskar Groening, defendant and former Nazi SS officer dubbed the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz" leaves the court after the announcement of his verdict in Lueneburg, Germany, July 15, 2015.

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s constitutional court has ruled that a 96-year-old German must go to jail over his role in mass murders committed at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during World War Two, refusing to overturn a lower court ruling.

Oskar Groening, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” for his job counting cash taken from the camp’s victims, was sentenced to four years’ jail in 2015, but wrangling over his health and age have delayed the start of his sentence.

The constitutional court rejected the argument by Groening’s lawyers that imprisonment at his advanced age would violate his right to life, adding that the gravity of his crimes meant there was a particular need for him to be seen to be punished.

“The plaintiff has been found guilty of being accessory to murder in 300,000 related cases, meaning there is a particular importance to carrying out the sentence the state has demanded,” the judges wrote, upholding the Celle regional court’s ruling.

There is no further appeal to the constitutional court’s ruling. The ruling does leave open the possibility that Groening could be released if his health deteriorates.

In a 2015 court battle seen as one of the last major Holocaust trials, prosecutors said although Groening did not kill anyone himself while working at Auschwitz, in Nazi-occupied Poland, he helped support the regime responsible for mass murder by sorting bank notes seized from trainloads of arriving Jews.

Groening, who admitted he was morally guilty, said he was an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to work at Auschwitz in 1942, at the age of 21.

He came to attention in 2005 after giving interviews about his work in the camp in an attempt to persuade Holocaust deniers that the genocide had taken place.

Some 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust carried out under Adolf Hitler.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Alison Williams)

Yazidi sisters reunited after three years in Islamic State captivity

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 12, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18,

y Raya Jalabi

SHARYA, Iraq (Reuters) – When Rosa, now 14, asked her Islamic State captors about her younger sisters Bushra, 12, and Suhayla, seven, she was told they had been killed for misbehaving.

“At that point, I didn’t care about anything anymore. Even if I died,” she said. “I never thought I’d see them again.”

The sisters were finally reunited on Sunday, more than three years after being taken by the militants in an assault on Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland on August 3, 2014.

Yazidi girl Rosa, 13, who was reunited with her family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, is seen at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017.

Yazidi girl Rosa, 13, who was reunited with her family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, is seen at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Just last week, Iraq declared “final victory” over Islamic State, with parades through the streets of Baghdad in celebration after three years of bloody war.

But the damage done by the militants is not easily remedied: they brutalized Iraqis, exposing fault lines in the country’s already fragile social fabric and ripping families apart.

For Rosa and her family, though overjoyed at reuniting, the last three years will not be easily erased.

The militants shot, beheaded, burned alive or kidnapped more than 9,000 members of the minority religion, in what the United Nations has called a genocidal campaign against them. According to community leaders, more than 3,000 Yazidis remain unaccounted for.

Among them, are Rosa’s parents, thought murdered by the militants who rolled their victims into mass graves scattered across the sides of Sinjar mountain, where thousands of Yazidis still live in tents.

The girls’ nine-year-old brother, Zinal, is also still missing. Captured and held with them in the nearby city of Tal Afar, he was later driven away to Mosul in a car full of young Yazidi boys. They haven’t heard from him since.

SEPARATED AND SOLD

Reuters could not verify all of the details given by Rosa, Bushra and some of the five older brothers they now live with in a group of tents in the tiny village of Sharya in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

But Amin Khalat, spokesperson for Kurdish government office which helps return missing Yazidis, said Rosa and Suhayla had been taken to Syria and Turkey respectively after being held in Tal Afar and that his office had helped reunite them with their family.

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 12, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18,

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 7, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

He said Rosa was returned from Syria by fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Suhayla by the Iraqi government which was alerted to her existence by Turkish officials who found her at a refugee camp in Turkey. Her family then recognized her photograph.

Rosa said she and her younger siblings were sold, by the Islamic State militants who attacked Sinjar, to a fighter and his family in Tal Afar, a city of predominantly ethnic Turkmen which produced some of the group’s most senior commanders.

She said she did all the household chores and cared for her siblings and other young Yazidi captives, who lived together in a tiny room.

After a year together, Zinal was taken to Mosul, while Suhayla and Bushra were sold off to separate Islamic State families, close to one another, but not allowed to meet. After Bushra’s captors took her to Rosa’s house for a visit, she said she memorized the route so she could return.

“I would wait till everyone fell asleep in the afternoon, I’d pretend to fall asleep and then sneak out to see Rosa,” said Bushra. “They once caught me and threatened to sell me off if I didn’t stop seeing my sister but I didn’t care.”

Bushra said she was eventually sold again, but about a year ago, she and six older Yazidi girls ran away and reached Sinjar, where Kurdish fighters helped them find their families.

Rosa was taken to Deir Ezzor, Syria and sold twice more. She said she was originally bought for $4 in Tal Afar and last sold in Syria for $60. “Those dogs made quite a good profit out of me,” she said with a wry smile. PKK fighters came across her in Idlib and brought her back to Iraq and her family, she said.

Suhayla was taken by her Turkmen captors to a refugee camp in Turkey, where authorities discovered her situation and repatriated her. She was reunited with her sisters and other relatives on Sunday, a day after Rosa returned.

A general view of Sharya Camp, where Yazidi girls (back) who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants reside in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017

A general view of Sharya Camp, where Yazidi girls (back) who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants reside in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Beaten, forced to convert and forget their native Kurdish, the girls even had their names changed.

Rosa was known as Noor – hers was an infidel’s name, her captors told her. Suhayla, captured when she was three, barely recognizes her sisters and speaks in broken Turkman dialect and Arabic.

“She has to learn to remember us again,” said Rosa. “She got used to calling some strangers mum and grandpa while she was held captive.”

Her sisters say Suhayla has barely spoken since returning to her family, but wearing a pink sweater and plastic jewelry, she relaxed under a flood of kisses from her sisters.

Bushra, nine when she was captured, is only at ease with her closest relatives. Because she returned to the family first, her brothers have asked her to help her sisters, but she warned them that it would not be easy.

“It’s true we are strong, we’ve been through so much. But our hearts are weak – they’re broken.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Turkish PM calls Rohingya killings in Myanmar ‘genocide’

Rohingya refugee children play at the Shamlapur refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Turkey’s prime minister on Wednesday dubbed the killing of minority Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar by its security forces “genocide” and urged the international community to ensure their safety back home.

Binali Yildirim met several Rohingyas in two refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh.

Almost 870,000 Rohingya fled there, about 660,000 of whom arrived after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

“The Myanmar military has been trying to uproot Rohingya Muslim community from their homeland and for that they persecuted them, set fire to their homes, villages, raped and abused women and killed them,” Yildirim told reporters from Cox’s Bazar, before flying back to Turkey.

“It’s one kind of a genocide,” he said.

“The international community should also work together to ensure their safe and dignified return to their homeland,” Yildirim, who was accompanied by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, said.

Surveys of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres have shown at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state in the month after violence flared up on Aug. 25, MSF said last week.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called the violence “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said he would not be surprised if a court eventually ruled that genocide had taken place.

Yildirim inaugurated a medical camp at Balukhali, sponsored by Turkey, and handed over two ambulances to Cox’s Bazar district administration. He also distributed food to Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong makeshift camp.

He urged the international community to enhance support for Rohingyas in Bangladesh and help find a political solution to this humanitarian crisis.

U.N. investigators have heard Rohingya testimony of a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson”.

The United Nations defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. Such a designation is rare under international law, but has been used in contexts including Bosnia, Sudan and an Islamic State campaign against the Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria.

Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s less than two-year old civilian government has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with under Myanmar’s transition after decades of military rule.

Yildirim’s trip follows Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan’s visit in September to the Rohingya camp, when she said the crack down in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was “tantamount to genocide” and a solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Myanmar alone.

(Reporting by Mohammad Nurul Islam; Editing by Malini Menon and Richard Balmforth)

U.N. warns against any hasty returns of Rohingya to Myanmar

U.N. warns against any hasty returns of Rohingya to Myanmar

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Peace and stability must be restored in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state before any Rohingyas can return from Bangladesh, under international standards on voluntary repatriation, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday.

Some 20,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in November, and at least 270 so far in December, bringing the total since violence erupted on August 25 to 646,000, according to the UNHCR and International Organization of Migration (IOM).

The two countries have signed an agreement on voluntary repatriation which refers to establishing a joint working group within three weeks of the Nov. 23 signing. UNHCR is not party to the pact or involved in the bilateral discussions for now.

“It is critical that the returns are not rushed or premature,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a briefing. “People can’t be moving back in into conditions in Rakhine state that simply aren’t sustainable.”

Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, said on Tuesday that his government hoped returns would begin within two months. He was addressing the Human Rights Council, where the top U.N. rights official said that Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The UNHCR has not been formally invited to join the working group, although its Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements is holding talks in Bangladesh, Edwards said, adding that discussions were “still at a very preliminary stage”.

He could not say whether UNHCR was in talks with Myanmar authorities on its role, but hoped the agency would be part of the joint working group.

Edwards, asked whether the two-month time was premature, said: “The return timeline of course is something that we are going to have to look closely at … We don’t want to see returns happening either involuntarily or precipitously and before conditions are ready.”

In all, Bangladesh is hosting a total of more than 858,000 Rohingya, including previous waves, IOM figures show.

“We have had … a cycle of displacement from Rakhine state over many decades, of people being marginalized, of violence, of people fleeing and then people returning,” Edwards said.

“Now this cycle has to be broken, which means that we have to find a way to ensure that there is a lasting solution for these people.”

WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said that it had distributed food to 32,000 people in northern Rakhine in November.

“Everybody agrees that the situation is very dire on ground, that all of the U.N. agencies need more access, that the violence has to stop and that these people can live in safety where they want to live,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Rohingya refugees still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh: UNHCR

Rohingya refugees still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh: UNHCR

By Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – Rohingya refugees continue to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh even though both countries set up a timetable last month to allow them to start to return home, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR)said on Thursday.

The number of refugees appears to have slowed. 625,000 have arrived since Aug. 25. 30,000 came last month and around 1,500 arrived last week, UNHCR said

“The refugee emergency in Bangladesh is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world,” said deputy high commissioner Kelly Clements. “Conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhaine state are not in place to enable a safe and sustainable return … refugees are still fleeing.”

“Most have little or nothing to go back to. Their homes and villages have been destroyed. Deep divisions between communities remain unaddressed and human access is inadequate,” she said.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Nov. 23 to start the return of Rohingya within two months. It did not say when the process would be complete.

Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, according to the top U.N. human rights official this week. Mainly Buddhist Myanmar denies the Muslim Rohingya are its citizens and considers them foreigners.

UNHCR would make a fresh appeal to donors for funds after the end of February in next year, Kelly said.

(Reporting By Serajul Quadir; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)