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Two dead, mosques destroyed in Myanmar unrest: police

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Two people died and several mosques were destroyed in central Myanmar, police said Thursday, in the worst riots since Buddhist-Muslim clashes rocked western Rakhine state last year.

Around 200 people fought in the streets after an argument in a Muslim-owned gold shop turned violent in the town of Meiktila on Wednesday, according to a post on Myanmar Police Force's Facebook page.

The two victims, who included a Buddhist monk, died after suffering severe burns, it said.

Police imposed a curfew overnight to control the situation after mobs set fire to several mosques.

"About three mosques were destroyed," a local police officer told AFP by telephone, but added that calm had since been restored.

But a member of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the town said he could still see smoke rising from the affected residential area.

"What is happening now is religious tension. We are trying to calm the situation down," NLD MP Win Htein told AFP, adding that the situation was "tense".

"I haven't seen this kind of conflict in Meiktila in my life."

The unrest comes amid heightened tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, where communal conflict in Rakhine has left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced since June 2012.

An initial report on the police Facebook page late on Wednesday said anger spread after one man was injured during the row in the gold shop.

The report said a mob then descended on the area and destroyed some buildings in the area.

It said six people were hospitalised, and that the Buddhist monk and a Muslim man later died from their injuries. A subsequent police report omitted the religion of the second man.

"The situation is unpredictable," Hein Thu Aung, a 29-year-old local man, told AFP. "I can't guess what will happen next. The violence could get worse -- everyone here is aggressive."

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

Muslims entered Myanmar en masse for the first time as indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.

But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country.

Pockets of sectarian unrest have occasionally broken out in the past across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for tensions.

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

Hundreds are feared to have drowned along the way.

The United Nations describes the Rohingya as among the most persecuted minority groups in the world. Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130321/two-dead-mosques-destroyed-myanmar-unrest-police