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SITTWE, Rakhine State — Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday visited areas riven by ethnic violence for the first time since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims began fleeing the country to escape a brutal military operation launched in late August.
Reuters photographers saw thousands of desperate Rohingya wade through shallows and narrow creeks between islands of the Naf River to reach neighbouring Bangladesh the previous evening.
Some had small boats or pulled makeshift rafts to get to Bangladesh on the river’s western bank, but most walked, children cradled in their arms and the elderly carried on their backs, with sacks of belongings tied to staves on their shoulders.
Reaching the far side, some women and older people had to be pulled through the mud to reach dry land atop steep banks.
More than 4,000 crossed at different points on the river on Wednesday, Major Mohammed Iqbal, a Bangladesh security official in the southern district of Cox’s Bazar, told Reuters.
A Reuters reporter saw Suu Kyi board a military helicopter at Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, at about 9 a.m. on Thursday, amid a heightened security presence.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has faced heavy international criticism for not taking a higher profile in responding to what UN officials have called “ethnic cleansing” by the army.
Lately Suu Kyi, who does not control the military, has appeared to take a stronger lead in the crisis, focusing government efforts on rehabilitation and pledging to repatriate refugees.
Spokesman Zaw Htay said Suu Kyi was visiting the troubled border district of Maungdaw, which has seen the greatest exodus of people.
“She will go to Maungdaw, and I cannot give any more details,” he told Reuters.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled predominantly Buddhist Burma to neighbouring Bangladesh since late August, to escape violence in a brutal military counter-insurgency operation after Rohingya militants attacked security posts in Burma’s Rakhine State.
Refugees in the Bangladesh camps say the Burma Army torched their villages, but Burma blames Rohingya militants.
Suu Kyi had not previously visited Rakhine since assuming power last year following a landslide 2015 election victory. The majority of residents in the northern part of the state, which includes Maungdaw, were Muslims until the recent crisis.
Burma has rejected the accusations of ethnic cleansing, saying its security forces launched a counter-insurgency operation after Rohingya militants attacked 30 security posts in northern Rakhine on 25 August.
Suu Kyi was accompanied on Thursday by about 20 people travelling in two military helicopters, including military, police and state officials, the Reuters reporter said.
Businessman Zaw Zaw, formerly sanctioned by the US Treasury for his ties to Burma’s junta, was also with the Nobel laureate.
Suu Kyi launched a project last month to help rehabilitation and resettlement in Rakhine and has urged tycoons to contribute.
She has pledged to allow the return of refugees who can prove they were residents of Burma, but thousands of people have continued to flee to Bangladesh.
Talks with Bangladesh have yet to deliver a pact on a repatriation process made more complex because predominantly-Buddhist Burma has long denied citizenship to the Muslim Rohingya.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman voiced fears on Tuesday that Bangladesh could be stalling on the accord to first get millions of dollars of international aid money, an accusation a senior Bangladesh home ministry official described as outrageous.
But the scene on Wednesday at the Naf River showed Rohingya were still ready to risk being destitute in Bangladesh, rather than stay in Burma in fear of their lives.