Two days of rioting between Buddhists and Muslims in a central Myanmar town has killed at least 20 people, a legislator said.
The situation in the town of Meikhtila on Friday remained tense and dangerous Win Htein, a local parliamentarian from the opposition National League for Democracy, said.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Bangkok, said the death toll is likely to rise in the coming days.
“Violence was continuing on Friday morning. Small groups of men are roaming around the town, attacking each other and setting fires to buildings as well,” Hay said.
“Many Muslims and Buddhists are leaving the town and some of them, as they are leaving, are saying that security forces … have done nothing to restore order.”
Fires set to Muslim homes continued to burn but angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from putting out the blazes, he said.
At least five mosques were torched during the violence that started on Wednesday, reportedly triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.
A Buddhist monk was among the first killed, inflaming tensions that led a Buddhist mob to rampage through a Muslim neighbourhood.
Meikhtila is about 550km north of the main city of Yangon with a population of about 100,000 people, of whom about a third are Muslims, Win Htein said.
He said before this week’s violence, the community had 17 mosques.
It was difficult to determine the extent of destruction in the town because residents were too afraid to walk the streets and were sheltering in monasteries or other locations away from the violence.
“We don’t feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery,” said Sein Shwe, a shop owner. “The situation is unpredictable and dangerous.”
Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar’s majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades.
The violence in Meikhtila was the latest sectarian unrest after clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year in western Rakhine state left more than 200 people dead and 100,000 homeless.
It is also the latest challenge for the government as it tries to keep peace in the country and navigate the transition from military rule to fledgling democracy.