TEKNAF, Bangladesh (Reuters) - More than 100 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Wednesday, with the latest refugees saying army operations are continuing in troubled Rakhine State, raising doubts about plans to send back 655,500 who had already fled.
Scores more were waiting to cross the Naf river that forms the border, even as Dhaka prepares to start repatriating next week some of the Rohingya who have escaped from what the Myanmar military calls counter-insurgency operations since late August.
Bangladesh and Myanmar said on Tuesday they had agreed to complete the return of the refugees within two years, with the process due to begin on Jan. 23.
The United Nations has described the Myanmar military operations in the northern part of Rakhine, launched in response to attacks by militants on police and soldiers on Aug. 25, as a classic case of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.
One boat crossed the Naf river carrying 53 people early Wednesday, and another boat arrived from the Bay of Bengal with 60 people Thursday morning, according to a Bangladeshi intelligence official in Dhaka, and aid officials at the sprawling Rohingya camp in Kutupalong, near Cox’s Bazar.
Those waiting on the Myanmar side to cross were stuck there because they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen, the recent arrivals said. They said they paid between 30,000 and 40,000 kyat (£14.4-21.6) a person for the night-time trips on rickety boats to Teknaf, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh.
Most of the recent arrivals said they came from Sein Yin Pyin village in Buthidaung district, and escaped because they feared they would be picked up by the military if they left their homes to go to work.
Mohammad Ismail, 48, and four others said two weeks ago they saw a dead body hanging by a rope in a forest where Ismail used to collect wood to sell at the market.
“After this I never went to the forest again, and all my money was gone, so my family had nothing to eat for three days,” said Ismail.
Myanmar Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, spokesman for the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, said “there’s no clearance operation going on in the villages”. But, he added, “security forces are still trying to take control of the area” in northern Rakhine. He declined to elaborate.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment.
Myanmar’s military said in October that it was withdrawing soldiers from western Rakhine state.
Villagers from Sein Yin Pyin said a group of soldiers caught around 200 of them sleeping in the forest on their journey to Bangladesh and looted them of their belongings, including rice, phones, solar chargers and money.
They were stopped again later that day at a beach in Dongkhali village, where around 20 soldiers recorded video of them on their smartphones, while questioning the group and urging them to stay.
“Why are you leaving? You are safe here, don’t go. We will give you a car, go back to your village. If you leave, you will not be able to come back again,” Arif Ullah, 20, said the soldiers told the group.
More than two dozen refugees that Reuters interviewed recounted a similar version of events.
“First their men looted us, and then they stopped us again to ask why we were leaving,” said Umme Habiba, 15. “We left because we were scared.”
Fayazur Rahman, a 33-year-old labourer from southern Buthidaung, said 12 soldiers barged into his home two weeks ago and sexually assaulted his 18-year-old sister. “Day by day, things were getting worse,” he said.
Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts the new arrivals gave. Myanmar has denied most allegations of abuses levelled against its security forces during the operations in Rakhine.
In Dhaka, a senior foreign ministry official told Reuters that the deadline of next Tuesday for starting the Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar “may not be possible”.
“The return has to be voluntary, safe and dignified,” said the official, who was part of a 14-member team at talks with Myanmar this week about the repatriation.
He said Myanmar would take back 1,500 Rohingya a week, “although our demand was 15,000 per week”, adding the number could be ramped up over the next few months.
They would sheltered in a temporary transit camp in Myanmar before being moved to “houses as per their choices”.
“They (Myanmar) will create all kind of provisions including for their livelihood. We want to make sure there’s a sustainable solution to the crisis,” the official said.
Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in Yangon and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson