COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH - Bangladesh officials said Tuesday a huge fire burned and gunshots were heard in a village across the border in Myanmar’s conflict-scarred Rakhine state, where authorities want to return Rohingya refugees.
A “big fire” was seen raging late Monday in an abandoned village from Tombru, a frontier post in Cox’s Bazar district, a senior Bangladeshi border guard said on condition of anonymity.
The fire occurred the evening before Bangladesh was due to start repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state under an agreement with Myanmar.
The repatriation process was to begin Tuesday and last two years, but was delayed as Bangladesh conceded both sides were not ready for the huge undertaking.
It is believed the homes ablaze overnight belonged to Rohingya, the official said. The border region is controlled by Myanmar’s forces, he added.
Another border official said he heard several gunshots before flames were seen leaping from the village.
It was not possible to independently verify the accounts as Myanmar has heavily restricted access to the area.
Abul Naser, a 42-year-old Rohingya refugee living near the border, described seeing “flames and clouds of smoke.”
“They are trying to send us a message, they are trying to scare us so that we never go back,” he said, referring to Myanmar forces.
Footage of the blaze quickly spread among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh through social media, with many quick to blame Myanmar’s security forces.
“The fire is designed to destroy the last remaining traces of Rohingya homes so that none of us can return to our villages,” said Rafique bin Habib, an activist from the persecuted Muslim minority.
He said without homes, those Rohingya returned under the controversial repatriation agreement would be denied access to their ancestral lands and forced to live in displacement camps.
Displaced Rohingya inside Bangladesh have described homes being razed by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs during a campaign of violence the U.N. has likened to ethnic cleansing.
Nearly 690,000 Muslim Rohingya have escaped Rakhine state over the border into Bangladesh since August in the wake of a military-led campaign in Rakhine state against the Muslim minority.
Rights groups and the U.N. have said any repatriation must be voluntary.
Many refugees have rallied against the prospect of return, fearing repeat persecution and being confined to camps indefinitely.