Towns and villages across northern Rakhine state were deserted today, as terrified residents fled a deadly military crackdown on foot and by air, fearing Myanmar's restive western state could once again be ripped apart by violence.
Local officials believe hundreds of people from the area, home to many from the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, spent months planning attacks on police posts along the Bangladesh border that sparked the crisis this week.
Twenty-six civilians have died in the ensuing military lockdown, state media reported - rights groups say the army is gunning down unarmed Muslims on the streets but the army say troops are defending themselves against attack.
Law enforcement said 50 "violent attackers" tried several times to overrun a security office yesterday but were repelled by police and soldiers.
Families have been streaming out of Maungdaw on foot, their worldly possessions stuffed into carrier bags and plastic buckets or strapped to the front of bicycle rickshaws.
Around 180 teachers, workers and residents were also airlifted out of the region at the epicentre of the crisis, while hundreds of government staff have poured into the state capital Sittwe.
AFP journalists said Maungdaw town and nearby villages were like ghost towns, with shops shuttered and armed police on patrol.
Many of those fleeing are local Buddhists, who make up the majority of the country but account for less than 10 per cent of the population in northern Rakhine, where most people are Muslim Rohingya.
Long-simmering animosity between the two groups erupted into communal violence in 2012 that ripped the impoverished state apart, leaving more than 100 dead and driving tens of thousands of Rohingya into squalid displacement camps.
"Many Rakhines are going back to Sittwe," said a resident of Buthidaung, a town close to Maungdaw, too scared to give his name.
"We are also afraid here because the attackers ran away with guns."
An AFP journalist reported seeing clouds of smoke billowing from a village Thursday near charred remains of two dozen bamboo houses that the military said had been torched by "terrorists".
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement calling for calm, after receiving "disturbing reports of extra-judicial killings of Rohingya Muslims, burning of houses, and arbitrary arrests by security forces".
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