Up to eight villages have burned down in a part of northwest Myanmar where large numbers of Muslim Rohingya had been sheltering from a wave of violence engulfing the area, a witness and three sources say.
The fires were blazing in the ethnically mixed Rathedaung township, where populations of Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists live side by side.
- Thousands of Muslims flee violence in Myanmar
- Myanmar leaders under mounting pressure over ethnic violence
"I saw the smoke coming from where the villages were burning... I saw it from the Chin village where I am staying now," said a villager from the area contacted by Reuters by phone.
It was unclear who set fire to the villages. Independent journalists are not allowed into the area, where Myanmar says its security forces are carrying out clearance operations to defend against "extremist terrorists".
Rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya say the army and Rakhine vigilantes have unleashed a campaign of arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population.
The burning of more villages is likely to fuel an exodus of Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh. Nearly 270,000 have fled in less than two weeks, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday her government was doing its best to protect everyone, but she has drawn criticism from around the world for failing to speak out about the violence and the Muslim minority, including calls to revoke her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Myanmar should respond responsibly to attacks on security forces in the country's Rakhine State, respecting rule of law and human rights, a senior official of the US State Department said on Friday.
Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told reporters Washington saw shortcomings on the part of the security forces and the government in dealing with the situation in Rakhine and was pushing for urgent restoration of access for humanitarian assistance and journalists there.
Rathedaung, the site of the latest fires, is the furthest Rohingya-inhabited area from the border with Bangladesh.
The blazes were confirmed by sources including two monitors with a network of informants on the ground, and a local journalist based in the nearby town of Buthidaung.
They said that among the torched villages were the hamlets of Ah Htet Nan Yar and Auk Nan Yar, some 65 km north of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state. One source said a camp for internally displaced people in the area also went up in flames.