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Myanmar army defends operation against Rohingya, denies reports of abuses

Myanmar's Chief of General Staff (Army,Navy and Air) Lieutenant General Mya Tun Oo talks during a news conference regarding the situation in northern Rakhine State and Northeast Monekoe conflict in November 2016 at the Chief of Defense office (Army) in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

By Aye Win Myint, Reuters

Myanmar’s military defended its crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority as a lawful counterinsurgency operation at a rare news conference on Tuesday, adding it was necessary to defend the country.

It was the first time the top generals directly addressed the mounting accusations of human rights abuses which, according to U.N. experts, may amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

“I want to say that I am very sad because of these kind of reckless accusations and neglect of the good things that the government and the military have done for them,” said General Mya Tun Oo, Chief of the General Staff, referring to the reports in the media quoting Rohingya residents describing the alleged abuses such as burning of houses in the area.

He presented a series of slides with selected media reports claiming the military had “investigated” them and that the villagers told military investigators they did not know about any abuses.

The military launched the operation after nine policemen were killed in attacks on security posts near the Bangladesh border on Oct. 9. More than 70,000 Rohingya have since fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, according to U.N. estimates.

At the conference, the military supported its claims by quoting international observers who have briefly visited some villages in the area as saying that they did not find any evidence of abuses.

But the visitors, such as the U.N. independent human rights expert Yanghee Lee and Western diplomats based in Yangon, have said the point of their visits has never been to conclusively investigate the media reports.

Mya Tun Oo said the military was continuing its probe.

“If we find that these cases are really happening as per the accusations in the media, we will take very serious action according to the military rules and current laws,” he said.

But the results of the investigation appeared to have been preempted by the head of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

A few hours before the conference, he posted on his Facebook page an exchange with visitors in which he said the “accusations are much wrong in comparison with the ground situation” in the troubled northwest state of Rakhine.

“The security troops are discharging their duty in line with the law. Correct information on the incidents is released on time.”

(Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; additional reporting by Wa Lone and Shwe Yee Saw Myint; Editing by Nick Macfie)