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Witnesses: Many Rohingya still trying to flee Myanmar

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, center, interacts with Rohingya Muslim children at Kutupalong, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. More than 400,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have poured into Bangladesh since the latest wave of violence exploded in their nearby home of Myanmar last month. The crisis has drawn global condemnation, with the United Nations and human rights groups calling on Myanmar to end what they describe as a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing. (Ziaul Haque Oisharjh / Associated Press)
By Muneeza Naqvi Associated Press

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – The massive exodus of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar to escape brutal persecution appears to have slowed down, but several recent refugees say at least tens of thousands more are huddled near beaches or in forests waiting to escape.

Some Rohingya who have fled over the last week said Myanmar army soldiers were shooting at those trying to flee to Bangladesh. Others said thousands were stuck in Myanmar because most boatmen had made the crossing to safety themselves and soldiers had burned many of the boats that remained.

Over the last month, an estimated 430,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh as their homes and villages were set on fire by mobs of soldiers and Buddhist monks. They have brought with them accounts of soldiers spraying their villages with gunfire.

In the first three weeks of the latest convulsion of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, tens of thousands of Rohingya poured into Bangladesh each day, walking for days through forests or taking rickety wooden boats on the rain-swollen Naf River. Many crossed into the country via the thin sliver of the Bay of Bengal that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh.

But Associated Press journalists have seen only a handful of people enter by land or sea at a few border crossings over the last week. However, there are several crossing points on the border between the two countries where Rohingya have entered over the last month, making it impossible to verify how many people enter Bangladesh each day.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, also noted that the number of incoming Rohingya appeared to have dipped.

One man who fled Myanmar, Syed Noor, said Sunday that tens of thousands of Rohingya were waiting at border points in Myanmar desperately trying to escape. Noor and his family had fled overnight into Bangladesh.

Noor said other people from his village and other villages near the Rakhine town of Buthidaung were hiding in forests near the Naf River.

“They are stuck in one place because the Myanmar army is shooting at us,” the exhausted man said, groaning in pain. His excruciating journey took nine days and he said there was no food to be had for the last four days.

At first, the Myanmar army was targeting people and shooting at them and asking them to leave their villages, but now that the terrified villagers were hiding in the forests “they are firing in the air to scare us,” Noor said.

“The people are scared to move. They are in a jungle near the river,” he said.

Last week, two other men who made the crossing said similar things.

Nur Karim, who crossed on foot Friday, said Myanmar soldiers fired on him and his family as they attempted to cross into Bangladesh. In the chaotic scene that followed, his wife and daughter were separated from him.

On Thursday, only three men had arrived at Shah Porir Dwip, the main coastal arrival point for refugees arriving in boats. The three came on a tiny wooden boat and said Myanmar soldiers were shooting at those trying to flee.

“The Myanmar army is not letting them go,” said Mohammar Amir, one of the three who got away. “But anyone who gets the chance escapes.”

Nur Islam, the imam of the main mosque at Shah Porir Dwip, also said the number of boats arriving there had dropped. A few small boats were still coming, making the already risky voyage even more dangerous by arriving at night or at dawn.

Maj. Kazi Obaidur Reza of Border Guards Bangladesh, the paramilitary force that guards the nation’s borders, said it appeared that most of the villages in Rakhine state were vacant of their Rohingya Muslim residents.

The Myanmar army was repairing the broken barbed wire fencing across many parts of the border, he said, adding that the repair work suggested that there were no Rohingya Muslims left to flee.

Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Sunday that the agency’s access in northern Rakhine state was limited.

“The information that we have is very patchy. But we know that there are people on the other side and under pressure and we know that there people who are displaced internally,” he said, adding that “we don’t know what will happen next. We have to be ready for large figures.”

He said the exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh is “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world” right now.

“I was struck by the incredible magnitude of their needs. They need everything. They need food, they need clean water, they need shelter, they need proper health care,” Grandi told reporters in the Bangladeshi town of Cox’s Bazar.

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said in a nationally televised speech last week that military operations in the troubled areas had ceased a few weeks ago. She also said the “great majority” of Muslims within the conflict zone were still in their villages and that “more than 50 percent of their villages were intact.”

But Amnesty International said as recently as Friday that fresh fires continued in Rakhine and that satellite and video images showed smoke rising from Muslim villages.

Rohingya have faced persecution and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for decades and are denied citizenship, even though they have lived there for generations. The government says there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya and that they are Bengalis who illegally migrated to Myanmar from Bangladesh.