Suspected insurgents killed at least six members of a Buddhist ethnic minority in western Myanmar on Thursday, the government and regional sources said, amid spiralling violence in troubled Rakhine state.
Security forces discovered the bodies of three men and three women bearing machete and gunshot wounds in the Mayu mountain range near the town of Maungdaw, the office of Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said.
In a statement, it said "extremists" were responsible for killing the six members of the Mro minority from the village of Kaigyi whom residents believe to have stumbled upon a camp for Rohingya Muslim militants.
Muslim-majority Northern Rakhine was plunged into violence last October when Rohingya insurgents killed nine police in coordinated attacks on border guard posts.
In the ensuing military operation, security forces allegedly shot villagers at random, raped Rohingya women and burned down houses. United Nations investigators who interviewed some of the nearly 75,000 people who fled to Bangladesh said troops probably committed crimes against humanity.
Security forces had begun an "intensive clearance operation" to hunt the killers on Thursday, a military officer in Rakhine said.
Two women aged 21 and 34 were still missing from the group that ventured into the hills to tend to farms, said the officer, who sought anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Aung Kyaw Min, a Buddhist resident of Kaigyi, said villagers believed the two women had also been killed because some of their bloody clothing was recovered.
"We are all suffering from this killing," he said. "All the villagers are in panic and nobody wants to live there. They all want to move to a safe place arranged by the government."
Non-Muslim ethic groups recognised as Myanmar citizens are the minority in northern Rakhine. About 1.1 million Rohingya live in the state, but are denied citizenship.
Tension among the communities has been running high in recent weeks, say aid workers and UN officials there.
In the town of Rathedaung, south of Maungdaw, troops launched a separate hunt for alleged militants, said the military officer and a human rights monitor with regional sources.
Security forces on Friday opened fire on villagers armed with sticks around the hamlet of Auk Nan Yar, the monitor and a resident said.
Four non-Muslim villagers went missing in the area last week and the mutilated bodies of three Muslims were discovered on Monday.