Two people have been killed during Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar's second-largest city, police said on Thursday, after security forces fired rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of rioters.
Myanmar has been shaken by several waves of sectarian conflict in recent years that have cast a shadow over its emergence from decades of repressive military rule. At least 250 people have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless since 2012 by inter-communal violence that has largely targeted Muslims.
Police fired rubber bullets during the night on Tuesday into Wednesday to disperse hundreds of rioters, some armed with sticks and knives, who took to the streets and attacked a Muslim teashop after an accusation of rape, the authorities said.
"There are two dead," a police officer, who did not want to be named, told AFP by telephone from the central city of Mandalay, without providing further details.
In a monthly radio address, Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein called for an end to religious hatred. "As our country is a multi-racial and -religious nation, the current reform process will be successful only when stability is maintained through the co-operation of all the citizens by living harmoniously with one another," he said according to an official transcript. "For the reform to be successful, I would like to urge all to avoid instigation and behaviour that incite hatred among our fellow citizens," he said.
The former general has been credited with pushing through dramatic reforms since the former junta handed power to a nominally civilian government in 2011. But the sectarian conflicts have provided a major test for his administration and prompted warnings that the country's fragile transition towards democracy could be at risk.
Radical monks have been accused of stoking religious tensions with fiery warnings that Buddhism is under threat from Islam. A prominent hardline monk, Wirathu, posted a link to online allegations against the teashop owners on his Facebook page just hours before the latest unrest flared up.
Rioters smashed or set fire to several cars and threw bricks and bottles at some houses, according to the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper. It said that about 450 rioters with sticks and knives took to the streets, despite an increased security presence.
"We are investigating this riot and will take action against those involved in the mob attack," Mandalay police chief Zaw Win Aung was quoted as saying. He said extra security forces would be deployed to restore order.
Myanmar's Muslims account for an estimated 4% of the roughly 60 million population in a country where for many people Buddhism forms an intrinsic part of national identity.