YANGON (Reuters) - Homes burned, gunshots rang out and witnesses reported many dead as sectarian violence raged for a fifth day between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in northwest Myanmar on Tuesday, threatening the country's nascent democracy.
Security forces struggled to stem the worst communal violence since Myanmar's reformist government replaced an oppressive junta last year and vowed to forge unity in one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries.
Hundreds of Rohingyas have been turned away by authorities in neighboring Bangladesh after attempting to flee the fighting in boats, say officials and witnesses.
The fighting in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's Rakhine State, has prompting President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency, impose dawn-to-dusk curfews and warn that "vengeance and anarchy" could jeopardize the country's fledgling transition to democracy after nearly 50 years of army rule.
"Almost all of the shops have closed. We only have a little bit to eat because the market is also closed," said a worker at a hotel in the centre of Sittwe.
Witnesses reported black smoke over Sittwe, a port town riven by tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. Some Buddhists have been seen carrying bamboo stakes, machetes and sling-shots. Muslims and Buddhists were seen setting houses on fire.
The United States and European Union urged calm to prevent a derailing of Myanmar's fragile reforms.
"Violence between each group is still continuing and is getting worse today in Sittwe. One Rakhine man died in the rioting this morning," said Aung Myat Kyaw, a member of the Rakhine state parliament.
He said about 5,000 people had taken refuge in Buddhist monasteries and schools in Sittwe.
Shwe Maung, a Muslim lower house representative in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party for the town of Buthidaung, urged the army to intervene and accused police of allowing Buddhists to break the curfew and burn Muslim houses.
"Sittwe is like a war zone," he said, putting the death toll at 50 in the village of Narzi, not far from Sittwe.
Already, the unrest is undermining the image of ethnic unity and stability that helped persuade the United States and Europe to suspend economic sanctions this year.