YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar's western Rakhine state on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of some staff members, residents and officials said.
There were no immediate indications anyone was hurt in the violence, which started in the state capital, Sittwe, late Wednesday and picked up again early Thursday, with angry crowds swelling in size from several hundred to more than 1,000.
At least one building was looted and three cars damaged, officials said on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, emerged from a half-century of military rule in 2011. But newfound freedoms of expression that accompanied its transition to democracy have given voice to religious hatred, causing violence that has left up to 280 people dead and sent another 140,000 fleeing their homes.
Most of the victims have been members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom have lived in the country for generations but are denied citizenship by national law.
Aid groups that have been providing care for the displaced have faced threats and intimidation. Last month, Doctors Without Borders, one of the biggest lifelines for the displaced, was expelled from Rakhine state in part because its staff included Rohingya.
Tensions in Rakhine have been soaring ahead of a national census — the first in 30 years — with many Buddhist ethnic Rakhine saying members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya on the survey.
Religious flags have been place in front of almost every house and office in Sittwe as a sign of protest.
Up to 300 people surrounded Malteser International late Wednesday following reports that a woman had removed a Buddhist flag flying in front of the group's office, state spokesman Win Myaing said. The organization could not immediately be reached for comment.
Police fired 40 to 50 warning shots to disperse the crowd, Win Myaing said.
The violence continued Thursday, with more than 1,000 people running through a street that houses international aid workers, throwing rocks at homes and damaging several of the residences.
"If police stopped them at one place, the mob moved to a different location and threw stones at (nongovernmental organization) houses," Sittwe resident Aung Than said by phone. "The mob is angry because the NGO staff treated our religious flag with disrespect."
Police escorted aid workers from their homes for safety reasons, Aung Than said.
Other aid groups said they were evacuating non-essential staff from Sittwe. At least two charter flights, one flying out Thursday and another Friday, have been arranged.
Local Rakhine residents have been angry with international non-governmental staff since sectarian violence first erupted in mid-2012, accusing them of being biased in favor of the Muslim community. There have been several peaceful protests in the past, but this is the first time property of the international aid organizations has been so directly targeted.
Sittwe resident Tun Tha said a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew had been imposed.
Authorities were driving around the city announcing the curfew through loudspeakers, he said, adding that soldiers and police were being stationed near the offices of the United Nations and international aid groups.