Burmese officials say a Buddhist mob has attacked the offices of an international relief group in the volatile western state of Rakhine.
Police say hundreds of people surrounded and threw stones at the offices of Malteser International late Wednesday in the town of Sittwe.
Officials say police fired warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd. Residents said the unrest continued Thursday, with the mob attacking homes and other properties housing members of the aid group.
A member of the national parliament from Rakhine State, Pe Than, told VOA's Burmese service the violence has been stopped and foreign Malteser aid workers are under police protection.
“[A curfew] has been imposed till 6:00 AM [Friday]. I was also told all the foreigners are gathered at Sittwe Hotel and [authorities] have [provided] full security for them,” said Pe Than.
Rakhine state legislator Aung Myat Kyaw said the problems started when a member of the aid group removed a Buddhist flag in front of the facility.
“The problem started when someone saw her insulting a Buddhist religious flag from flag pole near her office. She was doing something with that flag. Then that news spread to others and they felt angry about that,” Aung stated.
Buddhists have placed flags in the village as part of a protest against the mainly Muslim Rohingya minority group.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Thursday condemning the attack. "We are deeply concerned by mob violence in Sittwe over the past day targeting U.N. offices and international NGOs," the statement said. "Despite some efforts by local authorities to ensure the security of humanitarian workers, we remain deeply concerned about the continued lack of adequate security forces and rule of law on the ground there and in Rakhine State."
According to the statement the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon is in contact with Burmese officials and is discussing how to reinforce security.
In a statement posted on its website
, Malteser International denied accusations that a member of the aid group removed a Buddhist flag.
"Malteser International is committed to the humanitarian principles and therefore the absolute ethnic and political neutrality of our work is our highest priority. We therefore avoid any form of political, religious or ethnic partisanship," Ingo Radtke, Secretary General of Malteser International, stated. "That is the reason why our program coordinator has removed the Buddhist flag which – in the local context – might be seen as a symbol for a political positioning. She did not act in any degrading manner or express any cultural misconduct. As she noticed the population’s disapproval, she has immediately handed over the flag to the owner of the warehouse. Our program coordinator has many years of experience in humanitarian aid and has been working for Malteser International already since 2013.”
Buddhist-Muslim violence erupted in Rakhine state in 2012 and has since spread to other parts of the country. The sectarian fighting has killed at least 240 people and displaced 140,000 others, mainly Rohingya Muslims, who are called Bengali by the Burmese government.
It is feared that tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims will rise ahead of a nationwide census beginning Sunday.
Many fear the count could marginalize minorities such as the Rohingya or other ethnic groups living in one of the many conflict areas in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The predominantly Buddhist nation is recovering from decades of harsh, direct military rule.
Last month, the government tossed the international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders from Rakhine state. Government officials accused the group of stoking tensions by hiring Rohingya and providing more aid to Muslims than Buddhists.
The government denies the Rohingya many basic rights, including citizenship. It views them as immigrants from Bangladesh.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Burmese service.