An unknown number of people fleeing violence in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine region are adrift in boats on the Naf river and some have been turned back by Bangladesh authorities, the United Nations refugee agency said.
"The UN refugee agency has first-hand, credible accounts of boats from Myanmar not being enabled to access Bangladeshi territory. These reports indicate women, children and some wounded are onboard," the Geneva-based agency said in a statement on Friday.
Andrej Mahecic, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing in Geneva: "They are turning them back. Some were quite close because the locals were trying to give assistance to them."
"It is vital that these people are allowed access to a safe haven and shelter," Mahecic said.
The bloodshed has displaced tens of thousands of people, left dozens dead and many homes destroyed, in the western region.
The Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya have accused each other of violent attacks which have caused thousands of people to flee, according to government figures.
"UNHCR recognises that, for years, Bangladesh has been bearing the brunt of the forced displacement caused by earlier crises in Myanmar," said Mahecic.
"The latest events pose new challenges and UNHCR hopes that Bangladesh will respond in line with the country's long history of compassion and solidarity."
Agency workers visiting areas of unrest on Wednesday and Thursday to assess the situation witnessed "smouldering villages", he said.
"The situation is still tense. We hope that law and order will be reestablished soon - that would allow us to redeploy the staff that we had to move from the area temporarily as a precaution."
Those adrift are in desperate need of water food and medical care, he said, adding: "We have been talking to the Bangladeshi authorities and we hope that Bangladesh, in line with its long tradition of hospitality for the people of Myanmar, will allow access to safe haven and to assistance for this people."
There are already some 30,000 Rohingya staying in two camps in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said on Tuesday the impoverished country's resources were already strained.
Myanmar considers Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
Bangladesh says Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognised there as citizens.
Myanmar's state television on Thursday showed what it said were 29 people who were allegedly involved in the recent unrest between the two communities of ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Rohingya in Rakhine state.
The arrest allegedly took place on Wednesday night in Sittwe where 16 Muslim Rohingya and 13 Buddhist Rakhines were seized with knives, sticks and 70 petrol bottles.
With tension running high in the country, police urged local residents to be alert and to report any suspicious incidents.
More than 20 people have been killed in the fighting that erupted last week.
The clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have taken a roughly equal toll on both communities, though each blames the other for the violence.
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|William A. Cook|