Emergency declared after 20 killed in Meikhtila

Mobs set fire to Muslim homes and mosques in frenzied rioting in a town in central Myanmar, leaving at least 20 people dead and more than 6,000 homeless amid growing fears on Friday that the latest bout of Buddhist-Muslim bloodshed could spread.

In an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila, about 550 km north of the main city of Yangon, on Friday afternoon. The declaration allows the military to take over administrative functions in and around the town.

The scenes in Meikhtila, where homes and at least five mosques have been torched by angry mobs, were reminiscent of sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that shook western Rakhine State last year, killing hundreds of people and driving more than 100,000 from their homes.

The clashes in Meikhtila, which was tense but calm on Friday, are the first reported in central Myanmar since then.

There was no apparent direct connection between the Meikhtila violence and that last year in Rakhine State. Rakhine Buddhists allege that Rohingya are mostly illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.

Troubles began on Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. A Buddhist monk was among the first killed, inflaming tensions that led a Buddhist mob to rampage through a Muslim neighbourhood.

Violence continued on Thursday, and by Friday, Win Htein, a local lawmaker from the opposition National League for Democracy, said he had counted at least 20 bodies. He said 1,200 Muslim families at least 6,000 people have fled their homes and taken refuge at a stadium and a police station.

On Friday, police seized knives, swords, hammers and sticks from young men in the streets and detained scores of looters.

Fires set to Muslim homes continued to burn, but angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from putting them out.