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Fleeing Rohingya Refugees Fired Upon, Says Rights Group

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Human Rights Watch is calling for an investigation into an incident in which the Thai navy allegedly shot at a group of Rohingya "boat people," killing at least two of the asylum seekers.

The New York-based group Wednesday said its investigation revealed that Thai sailors last month opened fire on about 20 Rohingya refugees during a mission to push the group back out to sea. Thailand rejects the allegation.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma in recent months to escape sectarian violence and state-sponsored discrimination.

Thailand has refused to accept most of the refugees. It has instead ordered its navy to intercept the boats and provide the passengers with food and supplies before sending them on their way.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the "push back" policy, saying Thailand is failing to provide the Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law.

Thai foreign ministry spokesperson Manasvi Srisodapol denied the existence of such a policy as described by Human Rights Watch and many other organizations. In an interview with VOA, he also insisted the Thai navy did not fire at the Rohingya.

"We do not encourage the use of force or any conduct that would be harmful to the safety of the people," he said. "We will also treat those in custody in line with relevant Thai laws, taking into account relevant humanitarian considerations."

Thailand's navy last week also strongly denied the allegations, saying the sailors would have had no reason to shoot at the Rohingya.

In the February 22 case, Human Rights Watch says around 20 Rohingya jumped overboard toward land to escape the custody of Thai sailors, who reportedly had pushed their drifting vessel back to sea off the coast of Phang Nga province.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the Thai sailors opened fire on the refugees in the water, killing at least two. Four others say they managed to swim to shore and were hidden by Thai villagers. The fate of the rest of the passengers is unknown.

Human Rights Watch wants Thailand to investigate the incident and prosecute those found responsible. The group's Asia director Brad Adams said that "Rohingya fleeing Burma should be given protection, not shot at."

The United Nations says the Rohingya people are among the world's most persecuted minority groups. They are denied citizenship and many other basic rights in Burma, where they are regarded as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency, says that she cannot confirm the details of the February incident. But she said her agency is concerned about the fate of Rohingya refugees.

"U.N.H.C.R. has been advocating that people fleeing persecution should be able to be processed in the country or territory where they arrive.  So, they should not be pushed off for sure," said Tan. "They should definitely not be sent back to a place where their lives could be in danger."

An outbreak of sectarian violence in Burma's Arakan, or Rakhine state, between Rohingya Muslims and majority Buddhists has killed dozens and displaced hundreds of thousands in recent months.

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