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Myanmar denies report of new mass graves in Rakhine

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees walk along the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar denied on Friday that there were mass graves in a village in troubled Rakhine state, where a military crackdown on insurgents has triggered the flight of nearly 690,000 minority Rohingya Muslims to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Associated Press has reported it had confirmed the existence of more than five previously unreported mass graves in the village of Gu Dar Pyin, through interviews with survivors in refugee camps in Bangladesh and through time-stamped cellphone videos.

The Myanmar government's Information Committee, part of the office of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said in a statement on its Facebook page that local authorities and security officials formed a "ground team" that investigated the report.

"The ground team went to the locations that were mentioned in the AP news story as where the bodies were buried and found out that it is not true," the statement said.

"Besides, they met with local elders and villagers and asked whether there were mass killings or not and the villagers told them that there were none."

The statement said, however, that 19 "terrorists" had been killed when they attacked security forces in the village in late August and that their bodies had been "properly buried".

Two Rohingya residents, who were still in the village and spoke to Reuters by telephone, disputed the government's statement and said that there were mass graves there. They said senior military officers visited the area on Friday, took photographs and held a meeting with the villagers.

The residents, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal, were speaking by telephone to a Reuters reporter at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. The reporter was put in touch with them by former residents who have fled Rakhine.

One resident said his father attended the meeting, where officers asked how many people had been killed in the violence, who burnt their houses and whether there were mass graves there.

"The villagers were frightened and said they didn't know how many had died or who had burnt their houses but said, yes, there are mass graves here," the resident said.

Another resident of the village said three senior military officials arrived late in the morning, took pictures of a mass grave beside his house and then called a meeting at the school.

"The senior officials are gone now but a large group of military men stayed behind and the villagers are scared," the resident said.

Suu Kyi's spokesman referred requests for comment on the villagers' description of events to the Rakhine state government. A spokesman from the state government was not immediately available. The military said it had no immediate comment.

The AP's Director of Media Relations Lauren Easton said the agency stood by its reporting.

Reporters are not allowed access to the area, in the north of Rakhine state. The army launched a sweeping counteroffensive there in response to Rohingya militant attacks on Aug. 25.

The United Nations has condemned the army's campaign as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar denies that, saying its forces were carrying out legitimate counterinsurgency operations.

The military has acknowledged that Buddhist villagers and soldiers killed 10 people it described as captured Muslim terrorists and buried them in a grave in the village of Inn Din in early September. It has said action will be taken against those responsible.

(Reporting by Shoon Naing and Clare Baldwin; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman)

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