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Lack of access to Rakhine state ‘unacceptable’: UN

UN humanitarian office chief, Mark Lowcock, briefs journalists on the Rohingya crisis on Friday at the UN Offices in Geneva. (AFP)
GENEVA: The lack of humanitarian access granted by Myanmar’s government to Rakhine state, where more than half-a-million Rohingya Muslims have fled violence, is “unacceptable,” the UN said Friday while the EU has urged Myanmar to allow refugees to return.
Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN humanitarian office, told reporters in Geneva: “The access we have in northern Rakhine state is unacceptable,”
A small UN team visited the crisis-wracked region in majority Buddhist Myanmar in recent days and described witnessing “unimaginable” suffering.
Myanmar has tightly controlled access to the state since last month when attacks by Rohingya militants prompted an army kickback that has sent 515,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Scores of Rohingya villages have been torched.
Lowcock said he believed a “a high level” UN team would be able to visit the area “in the next few days.”
He repeated the UN’s call for the government to allow “unhindered (and) unfettered” access.
“Half a million people do not pick up sticks and flee their country on a whim,” Lowcock added, stressing that the scale of the exodus was evidence of a severe crisis in northern Rakhine.
The UN has “substantial capacity” in Myanmar which can be quickly deployed to northern Rakhine once clearance is granted he added.
A Myanmar official tally says hundreds of people died as violence consumed remote communities, including Rohingya.
Hindus and ethnic Rakhine were also among the dead — allegedly killed by Rohingya militants.
Rights groups say the real death toll is likely to be much higher, especially among the Rohingya, while the UN has labelled army operations as “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim group.
There may be up to 100,000 more people in northern Rakhine waiting to cross into Bangladesh, according to the International Organization for Migration.

‘Let Rohingya return’
President Donald Tusk on Friday urged Myanmar to adhere to its international rights obligations and allow Rohingya refugees to return after weeks of violence that have forced more than half a million to flee to Bangladesh.
Tusk said Myanmar must give aid workers access to the troubled state of Rakhine, where the Rohingya ethnic minority say the military are burning their villages in a campaign of retribution for attacks on police posts.
He made the comments after talks with Indian leaders in New Delhi, which he said was first in line to respond to the refugee crisis as a neighboring country.
“The EU continues to assume its responsibilities by receiving people in need of protection and by assisting host countries close to the conflict zones,” said Tusk after the talks.
“We addressed the situation in Myanmar and the Rohingya refugee crisis. We want to see de-escalation of tension and the full adherence to international human rights obligations as well as full humanitarian access so the aid can reach those in need.”
The UN says more than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since an upsurge in violence in Rakhine at the end of August.
Myanmar has tightly controlled aid workers’ access to the state since attacks in August by Rohingya militants which sparked a massive army crackdown.
Refugees interviewed in Bangladesh have accused the military and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state of burning villages and raping and killing Rohingya Muslims, who are regarded as illegal immigrants in Myanmar.
A small UN team visited the crisis-wracked region in majority Buddhist Myanmar in recent days and described “unimaginable” suffering.
Tusk made his comments at the end of the 14th EU-India Summit, at which the two sides also discussed a long delayed trade agreement.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the summit had been an “important step in the right direction” toward an agreement, but gave no time frame for progress.
The EU is India’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than 13 percent of the country’s commerce.