SITTWE, Myanmar: International pressure mounted for an end to sectarian violence in western Myanmar, where armed police on Tuesday patrolled a flashpoint region devastated by rioting and arson.
The United States urged an immediate halt to the deadly sectarian unrest, which has prompted the United Nations to evacuate foreign workers from Rakhine state, now under a state of emergency.
Small arms fire echoed on Tuesday around the state capital Sittwe, according to an AFP reporter, while plumes of smoke rose above the coastal city as Rohingya villagers fled their homes.
At least seven people have died since Friday, according to officials, in a cycle of apparent revenge attacks that presents a major test of fragile political reforms since army rule ended last year.
Rights organisations fear the real toll could be much higher with one advocacy group which works with the Rohingya, The Arakan Project, saying dozens of people had been killed.
AFP could not verify the figure and its team of reporters has been unable to visit many of the affected areas for security reasons.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday called for "all parties to exercise restraint", adding the "the United States continues to be deeply concerned" about the situation.
The United Nations has begun pulling out more than 40 workers -- including foreigners -- and their families from a base in Maungdaw, an area home to large numbers of Rohingya where clashes have also been reported.
Warning that the violence is running "out of control", New York-based Human Rights Watch called for international observers to be deployed in Rakhine.
"Why is the international community pulling out at this time? Is the threat at a level that warrants it?" said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division.
"The government of Burma has thrown a black veil over the situation in Rakhine state," he told AFP.
Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist state bordering Bangladesh, is home to a large number of Muslims including the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants and view them with hostility, describing them as "Bengalis".
Rioting has seen hundreds of homes torched across the state.
Buddhist women and children from outlying villages have taken refuge in monasteries inside Sittwe, according to an AFP reporter in the city, while a Rohingya village was torched on Tuesday morning forcing residents to leave for safety under an escort from security forces.
An ethnic Rakhine fireman said some Rohingya villagers had been injured as they escaped burning homes.
"We don't know who set the fires. We all have sympathy for them (the Rohingya). We saw women and children running for their lives. We are all humans," he added, but asked not to be named.
Around 100 other Rohingya attempting to escape over the frontier were turned back as they tried to cross a river, Bangladesh border forces said, the second straight day boats have been repelled from landing on its territory.
The violence poses a serious challenge to Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein, as the nation takes tentative steps towards democracy after decades of authoritarian rule.
A commentary published on Tuesday in the New Light of Myanmar warned continued ethnic strife could also put the unity of the country in jeopardy.
Under the headline "A single spark may well set the whole hillside on fire", the piece urged unity across Myanmar's dozens of ethnic groups.
Animosity between local Buddhists and the Rohingya appears increasingly intractable with both sides trading angry accusations over the surge in violence, much of it playing out over social networking websites.
Experts say more radical elements on both sides may be trying to benefit from the unrest.
"Some ... probably want to see the Rohingya purged from Burmese soil. Others would tolerate a situation where the Rohingya are forced to accept subordinate status," said Nicholas Farrelly, a southeast Asia expert at the Australian National University.
"On the other side, there are Rohingya who want the world to pay much more consistent attention to their plight. They may consider this flare-up of violence serves that purpose."
According to the UN, there are nearly 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, mostly in Rakhine. Another one million or more are thought to live in other countries.
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