US calls Myanmar operation against Rohingya 'ethnic cleansing'

WASHINGTON, Nov 22 (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday labeled the Myanmar military operation against the Rohingya population "ethnic cleansing" and said it would consider targeted sanctions against those responsible.

Referring to "horrendous atrocities" against the Rohingya, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement, "After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya."

Although a top UN official in September described the military actions as a textbook case of "ethnic cleansing," Tillerson left Myanmar, also known as Burma, after a visit last week without using the label.

His statement made clear the U.S. stance has shifted.

RELATED: Inside a Rohingya refugee camp

25 PHOTOS
Inside a Rohingya refugee camp
See Gallery
Inside a Rohingya refugee camp
A Rohingya refugee woman hangs her washing out in Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Sufated, a 10-month-old malnourished Rohingya boy, cries while being weighed at the Action Against Hunger center in Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar this week take shelter at a school in Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rohingya refugee children carry supplies through Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Rohingya refugees travel on a truck, as they shift to another camp, outside the Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
A Rohingya refugee boy fetches water from a water pump in Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Rohingya refugees carry an injured man after a fight broke out between families at the Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Rohingya refugees walk inside the Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Rohingya refugees manually drill a borewell at the Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Ruzina Akhter, 10, whose parents died while crossing the Myanmar border, cooks food inside a shelter at a refugee camp in Palong Khali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Rohingya refugees stand outside their shelter on hillock at a refugee camp in Palong Khali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
A Rohingya refugee boy bathes at a refugee camp in Palong Khali district in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Sowkot, 20, a pregnant Rohingya refugee, is examined in a women's clinic in Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
An army soldier gestures, as he asks Rohingya refugees to stand in a queue, outside a relief distribution centre, at the Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Rohingya refugee children stand in Palong Khali refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A Rohingya refugee girl holds her sister as she sits outside a medical center at a refugee camp in Palong Khali district, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Rohingya refugees line up to get food from Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) near Balukhali refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 21, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee boy carries a fish in Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 21, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugees walk in mud in Kutupalong refugees camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 20, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar this week take shelter at a school in Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 21, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
Zannat, 8, a Rohingya refugee, stands at the entrance to Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Rohingya refugees offload humanitarian aid into Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Rohingya refugees are registered by Bangladeshi army personnel at a registration center in Kutupalong refugees camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 20, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl who crossed the border from Myanmar this week sleeps beside his family belongings as he take shelter at a school in Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 21, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh," he said.

The United States supports an independent investigation into what happened in Rakhine state and will pursue actions including possible targeted sanctions, Tillerson said.

"Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable," he said.

Human rights monitors have accused Myanmar’s military of atrocities, including mass rape, against the stateless Rohingya during so-called clearance operations following Rohingya militants’ attacks on 30 police posts and an army base.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, since the crackdown, which followed the Aug. 25 insurgent attacks.

Pressure had mounted for a tougher U.S. response to the Rohingya crisis before President Donald Trump's maiden visit to Asia this month to attend a summit of Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, in Manila.

U.S. government sources told Reuters in October that officials were preparing a recommendation for Tillerson that would define the military-led campaign against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing, which could spur new sanctions.

In early November, U.S. lawmakers proposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on military officials in Myanmar.

Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, part of a congressional delegation that visited Rakhine this week, told reporters there on Tuesday, "This has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing."

Myanmar's 2-year-old government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with in the country’s transition to civilian power after decades of military rule. (Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

RELATED: Children impacted by the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar

29 PHOTOS
Children impacted by Rohingya crisis in Myanmar
See Gallery
Children impacted by Rohingya crisis in Myanmar
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, walk after they received permission from the Bangladesh army to continue their way to the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Balukhali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugee sits with her baby while waiting to receive humanitarian aid after arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugee baby, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, sleeps on his mother's shoulder while waiting to receive humanitarian aid after arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, queue to receive humanitarian aid while arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee girl, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, waits to receive humanitarian aid at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, crawls under a barbed wire during her walk to the Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, rest while they wait to receive humanitarian aids at Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, rest while they wait to receive humanitarian aids at Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee boy sits on the ground at Tang Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee girl poses with a chicken at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 17, 2017. Picture taken October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Mohamed Hares, an 8-month-old Rohingya refugee, receives treatment for a lung infection at the Red Cross emergency hospital near Kotupalang refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A still unnamed four-days-old Rohingya refugee baby who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, waits with his mother to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Rohingya refugee baby who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, sleeps with his mother on a field as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, sleep on a field as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees arrive to the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river after crossing the border from Myanmar, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar wait to be let through after they were forced to walk back by Bangladesh border guards, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 16, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A 7 months old, malnourished Rohingya child cries as she lies on the floor at her family shelter in Kutupalong, refugees camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Hamida, 65, a Rohingya refugee, who fled from Myanmar a day before, reacts after she along with other newly arrived refugees, spent a night waiting to be allowed to walk to a relief centre in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl queues to receive food at a camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border last night ride on the back of the truck that takes them to a camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child lines up to receive an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A daughter of Ansar Ullah, a Rohingya refugee who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, is carried in a basket by her father after thousands of newly arrived refugees spent a night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. Ansar Ullah, who said his village in Buthidaung region was attacked by Myanmar military, carried his two daughters in baskets for eight days as he and other refugees were making their way to Bangladesh. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Nd Rashid, a 28-year-old Rohingya refugee who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, waits for medical attention after spending the night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees walk in a rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee man hols his child as he swims to cross Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.