Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Bangladesh turned away three big boats carrying about 1,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in the Myanmar state of Rakhine, scene of sectarian violence between the Muslim minority and Buddhists. The attempt to land was made yesterday but Bangladeshi authorities sent back the would-be refugees. They did the same a few days ago with another 500. Meanwhile, soldiers and police patrol the city of Sittwe in Myanmar where President Thein Sein imposed a curfew to prevent sectarian clashes that have so far 23 claimed lives. Local witnesses said that at present is relatively calm, but could reignite easily.
"They [the boats] have been chased away," police official Jahangir Alam said by phone on Saint Martin's, an island in the Bay of Bengal. "We are keeping our eyes open so that nobody can enter Bangladesh illegally."
Later, the authorities, using loudspeakers, called on islanders to be vigilant to prevent Rohingya Muslims from entering the country.
Altogether, Bangladesh stopped some 1,500 Muslim refugees from Myanmar; 500 of them were found in 11 boats that were intercepted a few days ago off the Bangladeshi coast.
In Myanmar, the authorities have deployed soldiers in the streets of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. Using loudspeakers, soldiers went street to street warning residents that "zero tolerance" would be enforced on anyone found with weapons or caught in the act of burning buildings.
So far, state media have reported 21 deaths and an equal number of wounded as well as almost 1,700 buildings set on fire.
An apparent calm has come to the city but almost all stores are closed and few people can be seen in the streets or in public places.
Violence broke out in late May when a Buddhist woman was raped and killed. An angry crowd blamed Muslims and attacked a bus carrying Muslim passengers, killing ten.
Sittwe, the state capital of Rakhine, is under the control of security forces. As an important trading hub, the city is the point of origin for oil and gas pipelines being built by China National Petroleum Corp that stretch to Yunnan province.
With its 135 or more ethnic groups, Myanmar has always had difficulties in having them live together. In the past, the country's military junta used an iron fist against the more rebellious of them.
Muslims constitute 4 per cent of Myanmar's 60 million people. Rohingya number 750,000 according to UN figures, mostly in Rakhine state. Another million or so are divided between Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.
Yesterday's state of emergency is the first exceptional measure taken by Thein Sein. Since he became president more than a year ago, he has been trying to move the country from a military dictatorship to limited democracy.