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Myanmar riots spark fears of growing sectarian violence

Riots in central Myanmar have left more than 10 people dead and neighborhoods reduced to ashes. The hostilities raise fears that an escalation sectarian violence may destabilise the country.

At least 10 people have been killed following three days of unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar.

Buildings belonging to Muslims in Meikhtila, a township located 550 kilometers (340 miles) from the capital Rangoon, were still burning Friday as angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from extinguishing the blazes, Win Htein, a local parliamentarian from the opposition National League for Democracy told the Associated Press news agency.

At least five mosques were set alight in the violence that started Wednesday. Police said the rioting was triggered by a disagreement between a Muslim gold shop owner and Buddhist customers.

A Buddhist monk was believed to be one of the first killed in the riots, flaming tensions that led a group of Buddhists to storm a predominantly Muslim area of town.

A third of Meikthtila's population of 100,000 people are Muslims, Htein said. Prior to this week's violence, he added, the community had 17 mosques.

Scared locals have been sheltering in monasteries and taken shelter at a sports stadium away from the violence, local officials said.

"We don't feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery," Sein Shwe, a local shop owner told AP. "The situation is unpredictable and dangerous."

"I am really sad over what happened here because this is not just happening to one person. It's affecting all of us," Maung Maung, a Buddhist ward leader in Meikhtila said of the situation.

Infrequent violence between Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim populations has been ongoing for decades.

"Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace," Vijay Nambiar, UN special adviser of the secretary-general, said in a statement.

The week's latest sectarian unrest is the first since clashes between Rakhine Buddhinsts and Muslim Rohingya occurred in western Rakhine state last year. More than 110 people died and 100,000 were left homeless, most of them stateless Rohingya Muslims.

This new spate of violence is also a challenge for the newly elected democratic government as it attempts to keep the peace in the country which was suppressed by military rule for 49 years until 2011.

jlw/rg (Reuters, AP, AFP)