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Myanmar Military Admits Part in Killings of Muslims Found in Mass Grave

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Myanmar’s military said it was involved in the killings of 10 Muslims found in a mass grave last month in restive Rakhine state, its first admission of wrongdoing in a conflict that the U.S. labeled ethnic cleansing and which displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

A statement posted Wednesday on the Facebook page of military commander Sr.

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing

described the 10 men as armed Bengali terrorists who had been arrested when about 200 armed attackers tried to assault security forces in early September.

Members of security forces and Buddhist villagers confessed to killing the men instead of turning them over to police, in part, in retaliation at past intimidation and the killing of a local by others, the statement said. It said actions would be taken against those people, as well as against officers who failed to report the incident.

The term Bengali is often used in Myanmar to describe illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It is frequently directed at the more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims who lived in Buddhist-majority Myanmar before a military crackdown against the group that began in August. Rohingya, many of whom have lived in Myanmar for generations, are denied citizenship.

More than 650,000 people crossed the border to Bangladesh after the crackdown began. Some Rohingya provided chilling accounts of killings and rape by Myanmar military forces. In November, the U.S. described the military’s clearance of Rohingya villages as “ethnic cleansing,” echoing language used by the United Nations and some other governments.

The military had previously denied wrongdoing in the conflict. It exonerated itself of accusations of atrocities, including rape and killings, in an internal investigation in November.

Amnesty International called the military’s admission of wrongdoing Wednesday “the tip of the iceberg,” saying it “warrants serious independent investigation into what other atrocities were committed.”

A spokesman for

Aung San Suu Kyi,

Myanmar’s civilian leader, didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

The military crackdown last year was sparked by attacks by a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. ARSA has been largely quiet in recent months, but it last week ambushed a military truck in Rakhine, injuring five people.

In a statement after that attack, ARSA commander-in-chief Ata Ullah said the group was “left with no other option to but combat ‘Burmese state-sponsored terrorism’ against the Rohingya population.” He said military abuses against the Rohingya continue.

This week, two journalists for Reuters news agency who had been investigating a mass grave in Rakhine were charged in a Yangon court with obtaining state secrets, an offense that carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison. The pair had been given documents by the police and arrested shortly after. Prosecutors say those documents amount to state secrets.

The fate of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh remains uncertain. Myanmar and Bangladesh in November announced a tentative agreement to begin repatriating the Rohingya in a process that could take years. But repatriation has yet to begin.

Write to Ben Otto at ben.otto@wsj.com

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