SITTWE, Myanmar -- A human rights group said Myanmar government forces opened fire on crowds of ethnic Rohingya in a targeted campaign of violence during recent sectarian strife, as a U.N. envoy visited the area Wednesday to investigate the unrest.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called for a strong international response to "atrocities" committed during fighting in June between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. The violence in western Myanmar that left at least 78 people dead has subsided but many tens of thousands remain homeless – mostly Rohingya in need of food, shelter and medical care.
The official spokesman for Rakhine state rejected the group's criticism of the government's response to the violence. Win Myaing told The Associated Press that allegations that government forces stood and watched as violence wracked the area were "absolutely untrue."
"Security conditions obviously improved day by day when government forces were deployed to control the situation," Win Myaing said.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told reporters that the government "strongly rejects the accusations by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation."
The release of the Human Rights Watch report coincided with a visit by U.N. human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana to Rakhine state. His evaluation of the conflict is likely to be regarded as a yardstick for measuring the reforms undertaken by elected President Thein Sein after Myanmar ended decades of repressive military rule.
Much remains unknown about what transpired in Rakhine state during nearly two weeks of sectarian fighting, rioting and arson attacks because the area was virtually sealed off to the outside world. Quintana has made clear that investigating the conflict is a priority of his weeklong visit to Myanmar. He toured key sites of the June violence on Tuesday and Wednesday, declining to answer journalists' questions about his findings.
Tensions between the Rakhine and the Rohingya are longstanding, in part because many in Myanmar consider the Rohingya to be illegal settlers from neighboring Bangladesh.
"The government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse, but recent events in (Rakhine) state demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist," Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, said in a statement. He urged the international community not to be "blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change" in the country.
The violence was triggered by reports that a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and killed in late May by three Muslim men.
In retaliation, an angry mob of Rakhine villagers attacked a bus on June 3 and killed 10 Muslims, leading to waves of rioting and arson attacks by both groups against the other.
Human Rights Watch said government security forces were slow to stop the fighting and colluded with the Buddhist community as they "unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya."
It said police and paramilitary forces fired live ammunition at Rohingya on June 12 as they tried to stop Rakhine mobs from burning their homes in the state capital, Sittwe.
"When people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks," the report quoted a Rohingya man in Sittwe as saying. The report was based on 57 interviews with Rakhine, Rohingya and others in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, where Rohingya sought refuge.
State spokesman Win Myaing said the situation in Sittwe was initially very bad because police were badly outnumbered by rioters and could not immediately get to the areas where fighting had broken out.
Human Rights Watch called for the release of hundreds of Rohingya men and boys who were detained in June. It cited a history of torture and mistreatment of Rohingya detainees.
It also urged opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to protect Rohingya and seek amendment of a 1982 law that limits their rights.
Other human rights groups and some Islamic nations have also called for an outside investigation and protection of Rohingya, saying they continue to face abuses.