Myanmar vows to protect riot-hit aid agencies

Myanmar vows to protect riot-hit aid agencies
File photo of riot control policemen line up during a European Union crowd management training session for the Myanmar Police Force.

YANGON - Myanmar promised Wednesday to protect international aid groups targeted by Buddhist mobs in a violence-torn western region, after a chorus of concern from foreign governments and the United Nations.

Following an unusually swift investigation, Myanmar's reformist government conceded it had been slow to respond to unrest that forced humanitarian workers to flee Rakhine state last month, leaving thousands facing looming food and water shortages.

It vowed to "provide effective security to foreigners from the UN and other international organisations", according to a statement on the President's Office website.

"The security of personnel, offices and homes as well as their working environments will be protected," it added.

In a rare admission the statement also found authorities did not respond "quickly and effectively" to protect the aid groups as rioters ransacked offices of aid groups in Sittwe, the state capital.

The violence prompted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to telephone Myanmar's President Thein Sein to appeal for the protection of civilians and aid staff.

The United States has voiced alarm at the treatment of relief workers, while Britain on Monday summoned Myanmar's ambassador to express "deep concern".

Security forces eventually stepped in to guard damaged buildings, after mobs hurled stones, smashed property and looted warehouses of foreign humanitarian groups in a region where sectarian strife has displaced tens of thousands.

One young girl was killed in the riots.

More than 170 aid workers fled the state after the attacks. The report said they began after a staff member of Germany-based medical aid group Malteser International lowered a Buddhist flag outside a property rented by the aid group.

The President's Office statement said authorities will "expose the ringleaders and others involved in the riots".

The United Nations welcomed the statement after a meeting between officials and humanitarian groups in Yangon Wednesday.

"We have been assured that we will be allowed back," UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Renata Dessallien told reporters.

She added that aid groups had faced "some difficulty" recently in obtaining travel permits, but the government had given assurances that this would be resolved.

"At this moment in time in terms of the delivery of food and water - which were our biggest concerns as well as healthcare - some of the crisis has been averted. However there are still gaps that we are concerned about," she said.

International relief groups have come under huge pressure in Rakhine from local Buddhists who accuse them of bias towards Muslims.

Animosity between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine erupted into bloodshed in 2012, leaving dozens dead in clashes and around 140,000 people displaced.

Buddhist flags were hung across the city as part of protests against Muslims in the run-up to a controversial census, which many Buddhists vowed to boycott over fears it would be a platform for Muslims to claim political rights.

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