A Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board, according to refugees.
The three ethnic Rohingyas, whose names have been withheld because they are currently in hiding, said their group put out to sea in six boats heading to Teknaf in the southernmost part of Bangladesh on June 8 at around 4 p.m.
They said that they saw the helicopter take off from the area of Sittwe, the capital of western Burma’s Rakhine state, between 30 and 60 minutes after they launched their boats from Burmese soil.
One of the three refugees—a young father who made it to Bangladesh after the ordeal—said that the helicopter then circled above three of the boats that had fallen behind for nearly 20 minutes while setting fire to them.
“We saw something reddish fall on the boats and they instantly caught fire,” he said.
“The helicopter was circling in the sky above the burning boats.”
Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein denied reports of the attack in an interview with RFA on Saturday.
“It is absolutely untrue,” Hla Thein said, responding to the refugees’ allegation that the boats were attacked by a helicopter.
Col. Htein Linn, minister for border area and security affairs in Rakhine state, said Saturday he knew nothing about such an incident.
Aye Maung, a member of parliament for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) said that authorities have only one helicopter stationed at Sittwe airport and that it is unarmed. He said the helicopter is used only as transportation for the regional prime minister.
Calls to the Burmese foreign ministry and to the Burmese Embassy in Washington went unanswered Saturday.
The refugees said that it was unclear from their vantage point whether the crew of the helicopter had made any demands.
“We could not hear any other sound, as the sound of the engines of our boats was much louder. Additionally, our boat was at a distance [from where the incident occurred],” the young father said.
He said that all of the nearly 50 occupants of the three boats that caught fire were presumed killed, including men, women, and “very young children.”
“Most of the children killed in the attack were under the age of 10,” he said.
The three refugees said that many of their family members and close friends were among the occupants of the destroyed boats.
Afterwards, they said, the helicopter flew off in the direction of Sittwe.
“They burned three of our six boats,” the young father said.
“Only one of the boats we boarded managed to reach the shore in Bangladesh, as far as I know of.”
He said that his boat had twice been pushed back to sea by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), but that they were finally able to find a location to land and make their way onto Bangladeshi soil.
The members of his group were unaware of what had happened to the other two boats that had escaped the helicopter attack.
The alleged attack could not be independently verified. Staff members from international aid organizations, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Doctors Without Borders, and the World Food Program had been recalled to Rangoon for safety reasons following the outbreak of ethnic violence in Rakhine state.
Earlier, RFA had reported that it was unclear whether the helicopter was of Burmese or Bangladeshi origin, but that the refugees had been targeted after being turned away by authorities in Bangladesh.
But the Bangladeshi newspaper The New Nation reported Friday that the BGB had denied that any such incident had taken place.
The New Nation reported Friday that the BGB detained 16 Rohingyas who had tried to sneak into the country, also near Teknaf, over a 12-hour period on Thursday.
The latest detentions bring to 946 the number of Rohingyas who have been detained while seeking refuge in Bangladesh since sectarian violence erupted between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state in early June.
At least 2,000 Rohingyas have tried to enter Bangladesh since the clashes began.
Bangladesh says that its resources are already overly strained and has refused to accept the Rohingyas despite appeals from the United Nations to grant them refugee status.
Bangladeshi officials estimate that a total of 300,000 Rohingya people live in the country, with only about a tenth of them in two official refugee camps in the southern district of Cox’s Bazaar.
Burma considers the Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship while Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Burma for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.
Bangladesh law minister Shafique Ahmed on Saturday called on Burma to respect the rights of the Rohingyas and to recognize them as citizens of the country.
“The people of Myanmar [Burma] have rights to live in their country and the government of that country should ensure that their citizens can live there,” Shafique told Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper.
Reported by an RFA correspondent in Bangladesh with additional reporting by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Burmese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.