KUALA LUMPUR - Police have detained 15 people from Myanmar over a string of gruesome murders in a popular Malaysian tourist destination, and believe the killings are linked to ethnic unrest in their native country, reports said Friday.
Public anxiety has risen in Malaysia's historic state of Penang over the past few months as mutilated corpses or severed body parts have turned up - with at least 18 mysterious and unexplained murders of Myanmar nationals.
Authorities had made little comment until now but the state's police chief was quoted Friday saying they now believe the killings are linked to Myanmar's sectarian bloodshed - where there has been violent clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.
"We can tell that these are the work of Myanmar nationals. They bring their hatred here from their country of origin," Abdul Rahim Hanafi was quoted as saying by the Malay Mail.
"It was revenge they brought here from their country." He said police were still investigating. The report provided little further detail and AFP was not immediately able to reach Penang police for comment.
Violent clashes between majority Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya - who the United Nations calls one of the most persecuted minorities in the world - erupted in 2012 in western Myanmar's Rakhine state.
The violence has left about 200 people dead and up to 140,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced.
With its relatively more developed economy, Malaysia is a sought-after destination for Myanmar refugees and illegal migrants - both Buddhists and Rohingya - many of whom bring along their sectarian grudges.
Myanmar activists in Malaysia say dozens of Buddhists have been killed in revenge attacks related to the Rakhine violence.
Myanmar Buddhists complain that authorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia have done little to stop the attacks.
The recent string of killings in Penang - popular with tourists for its beaches, historic capital of Georgetown and polyglot cuisine - has fuelled concerns.
Some of those murdered in Penang were found with their throats slit or heads and limbs severed.
The Malay Mail and other reports did not specify whether those killed, or detained were Buddhist or Muslim. No further information about the victims has been officially released.
Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar asylum-seekers and economic migrants - most of them Buddhists - have made it to Malaysia.
Refugee activists say the flow is accelerating following the Rakhine violence and continued repression of Rohingya.
Myanmar's government views its roughly 1.3 million Rohingya as foreigners, denying most of them citizenship.
Penang is on Malaysia's northern coast, along the dangerous sea route via southern Thailand that is taken by Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.