Bodies in streets of riot-hit Myanmar town

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Charred bodies lay unclaimed on the streets of a riot-hit town in central Myanmar, witnesses said Friday, as global pressure mounted for an end to the Buddhist-Muslim unrest.

Parts of Meiktila have been reduced to ashes in the most serious communal violence to hit the former junta-ruled nation since last year, leaving the authorities struggling to bring the situation under control.

State media and a local hospital said five people had perished in the violence. A local lawmaker told AFP that about 25 people had been killed, but it was not possible to verify his toll.

Angry mobs of men took to the streets for a third day after an overnight curfew ended, according to AFP journalists.

The incinerated remains of one victim were seen lying next to a burnt bicycle on a roadside late Thursday -- just one of several bodies seen in the town.

Flames raged from torched mosques and houses, sending acrid smoke into the sky.

“The situation is getting worse,” a local resident said. “People are destroying buildings here and there. Many people have been killed. We are scared and trying to stay safe at home.”

The violence comes as Myanmar struggles with serious tensions between Muslims and Buddhists that have marred international optimism over dramatic political reforms since the end of military rule two years ago.

“As far as I know, about 25 people have been killed,” local MP Win Htein, of the opposition National League for Democracy party, told AFP.

“The situation is not good... although the government has said everything is under control.”

He said hundreds of Muslims had taken shelter at a football ground and police compound while Buddhists had sought sanctuary in monasteries as mobs continued to roam the town with knives and sticks.

Security forces were sent to rescue several journalists, including an AFP reporter, after they were threatened by a mob.

A local police officer said an order had been given on Thursday to shoot rioters below the waist if necessary to restore order.

Britain echoed international calls from the United States and the U.N. for a halt to the unrest, which local authorities said was sparked on Wednesday by a row in a Muslim-owned gold shop that erupted into a mass street brawl.

Calling for “an immediate end to the violence”, British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt urged Myanmar’s government “to take all necessary action to protect civilians” and “to tackle the hostility that is behind this”.

Communal conflict in a different region, the western state of Rakhine, left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced last year.

The outbreak of violence in Meiktila has raised fears that clashes could spread to elsewhere in the country without swift action.

Vijay Nambiar, the U.N.’s special adviser on Myanmar, urged religious and community leaders to call for calm, adding the “most urgent priority” was to soothe tensions and establish peace.

Myanmar’s Muslims -- largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent -- account for an estimated four percent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.

Muslims entered Buddhist-majority Myanmar en masse as indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948, but despite their long history they have never been fully integrated.

Sectarian unrest has occasionally broken out in the past in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions.

Since violence broke out there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingya -- including a growing number of women and children -- have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.

Win Htein said there were around 30,000 Muslims in Meiktila out of a total population of around 80,000 but that no similar clashes had happened in his lifetime.