Burma: State of emergency imposed in Meiktila

Scenes of devastation in Meiktila: Tin Htar Swe from the BBC Burmese Service explains what triggered the violence

A state of emergency has been imposed in the Burmese town of Meiktila following three days of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims.

A statement announcing the decision on behalf of President Thein Sein was broadcast on state television.

He said that the move would enable the military to help restore order in the riot-hit town, south of Mandalay.

At least 20 people are reported to have been killed since the violence began, but exact figures are unclear.

A BBC reporter who has just returned from the town said he saw about 20 Muslim bodies, which local men were trying to destroy by burning.

Meiktila MP Win Thein told the BBC Burmese service that scores of mostly Buddhist people accused of being involved in the violence had been arrested by police.

He said that he saw the bodies of eight people who had been killed in violence in the town on Friday morning. Many Muslims had fled gangs of Buddhist youths, he said, while other Muslims were in hiding.

Mr Win said that that violence that recurred on Friday morning has now receded, although the atmosphere in Meiktila remains tense.

Police say that at least 15 Buddhist monks on Friday burnt down a house belonging to a Muslim family on the outskirts of the town. There are no reports of any injuries.

An elderly Muslim resident is carried into a temporary relief camp in Meiktila

The disturbances began on Wednesday when an argument in a gold shop escalated quickly, with mobs setting mainly Muslim buildings alight, including some mosques.

Fighting in the streets between men from rival communities later broke out.

Meanwhile people in the town have told the BBC of food shortages because the main market in the town has been closed for the last five days.

Hundreds of riot police have been sent into Meiktila. They have been seen hurriedly evacuating crowds of men and women from their burning homes.

However they have been accused of doing little to stop the razing of entire neighbourhoods and the accumulation of casualties from both communities.

The BBC's south-east Asia correspondent Jonathan Head says that the eruption of communal anger uncomfortably echoes what happened in Rakhine state last year, where nearly 200 people were killed and tens of thousands forced from their homes.

The conflict that erupted in Rakhine involved Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognised as Burmese citizens. Scores of Rohingyas have fled what they say is persecution in Burma in recent months.

The government has yet to present any long-term proposals to resolve that conflict, our correspondent says, and simmering fear and mistrust between Buddhists and the country's Muslim minorities has boiled over in the more open political climate prevailing since the first elected government in half a century took office two years ago.

Meanwhile residents in Meiktila have complained that police have struggled to control groups of people on the streets armed with knives and sticks.

Most of these men are Buddhists, police say, angered over the death of a Buddhist monk who suffered severe burns on Wednesday.

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