SITTWE, Myanmar — With residents cowering indoors, security forces patrolling a tense town in western Myanmar collected bodies Monday from homes burned to ashes in some of the country's deadliest sectarian bloodshed in years.
The conflict along ethnic and religious lines has left at least seven people dead and hundreds of homes torched since Friday and poses one the biggest tests yet for Myanmar's new government as it tries to reform the nation after generations of military rule. The handling of the unrest will draw close scrutiny from Western powers, which have praised President Thein Sein's administration and rewarded it by easing years of harsh economic sanctions.
Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the region late Sunday and pleaded for an end to the "endless anarchic vengeance," warning that if the situation spun out of control, it could jeopardize the democratic reforms he has begun.
"Sittwe city center is quiet at the moment but we are afraid at nighttime. We are afraid that the Rohingya Muslims would come in boats and torch the villages along the river. We have not slept well for nearly a week," Sittwe resident Mya Thein said after darkness fell Monday.
Even as truckloads of soldiers patrolled the city, there was scattered violence again, as smoke from burning houses could be seen in at least one neighborhood about 15 minutes drive from downtown Sittwe.
Soldiers and police rushed to the area, while Rakhine civilians, men and women, armed themselves with sticks and bamboo spears with sharpened ends to guard their homes.
The United Nations said it had temporarily relocated 44 of its 150 personnel in Rakhine state. Local state television said cargo and passenger boats to Sittwe were suspended.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged a halt to the violence and called on authorities to conduct a quick, transparent investigation.
"The situation in Rakhine State underscores the critical need for mutual respect among all ethnic and religious groups and for serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Burma," she said in a statement. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
Violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and members of a Muslim minority who call themselves Rohingyas erupted Friday in Rakhine state and spread Saturday to Sittwe.
The unrest – trigged by the rape and murder last month of a Buddhist girl, allegedly by three Muslims, and the June 3 lynching of 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation – stems from long-standing tensions.
The region's Rohingya Muslims are seen by the government as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and are not officially recognized among Myanmar's ethnic minorities. Although some are recent settlers, many have lived in Myanmar for generations. The government position has rendered the Rohingyas effectively stateless, and rights groups say they have long suffered discrimination.
"It's a tinderbox," said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "These people very much feel like they're trapped in a box, surrounded by enemies and there is an extremely high level of frustration."
The Rohingyas' plight gained international attention in 2009 when five boatloads of haggard migrants fleeing Myanmar were detained by Thai authorities and allegedly sent adrift at sea with little food and water. Hundreds were believed to have drowned.
UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, estimates 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar's mountainous Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Thousands attempt to flee every year to Bangladesh, Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, trying to escape a life of abuse that rights groups say includes forced labor, violence against Rohingya women and restrictions on movement, marriage and reproduction.
In Sittwe on Monday, shops, schools and banks were closed, including the city's main market and some ethnic Rakhines wielding homemade swords could be seen guarding their homes or riding motorcycles. An Associated Press photographer in the town saw many homes burned or ransacked in the city's Mi Zan district.
Police retrieved four corpses, including one found in a river that was believed to be that of an ethnic Rakhine woman. The other three bodies were wrapped in blankets, but it was not clear who they were.
Police evacuated two Muslim families from the same area for their security because their Muslim homes were located among houses of ethnic Rakhines, who are predominantly Buddhist.
According to a list provided Monday by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, 12,074 people have been resettled at temporary camps in four townships of the state. There was no breakdown of how many lost their homes, and how many fled for protection. The party is one of the major parties associated with the country's ethnic minorities, and won 35 parliamentary seats in the 2010 elections.
Thein Sein's state of emergency was his first since becoming president and allows the military to take over administrative functions for Rakhine.
In a nine-minute speech televised nationally Sunday night, Thein Sein said that the violence was fanned by dissatisfaction harbored by different religious and ethnic groups, hatred and the desire for vengeance.
"If this endless anarchic vengeance and deadly acts continue, there is the danger of them spreading to other parts and being overwhelmed by subversive influences," he said. "If that happens, it can severely affect peace and tranquility and our nascent democratic reforms and the development of the country."
Thein Sein was elected with the backing of the military, but discarded many of its repressive policies to seek accommodation with the pro-democracy movement of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Clearly concerned that rumors could inflame the situation, the chief minister of Yangon Region, Myint Swe, warned editors and reporters from local journals Sunday to avoid writing reports that could instigate further violence.
Myint Swe warned that anyone who violates laws against undermining state security or spreading news that could cause disorder could face jail terms as long as seven years.
Thein Sein's government has made a major loosening of restrictions on the press under the recent reforms.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.