MEIKHTILA, Myanmar — The death toll from a vicious explosion of sectarian bloodshed in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar rose to at least 20 on Friday, as the president declared a state of emergency, thousands of minority Muslims fled, and overwhelmed riot police crisscrossed the ruined streets of a still-burning city seizing machetes and hammers from angry mobs.
Black smoke and flames poured from destroyed buildings in the central city of Meikhtila, where the unrest between local Buddhist and Muslim residents erupted Wednesday in the latest challenge to Myanmar’s ever-precarious transition to democratic rule.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where whole plots were reduced to smoldering masses of twisted debris. Broken glass, destroyed motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burnt-out homes and shops.
The devastation in Meikhtila, where at least five mosques have been torched by angry mobs, was reminiscent of strikingly similar scenes last year in western Myanmar, where sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced.
Human rights groups had long feared that that unrest could spread to other parts of Myanmar, and the clashes in Meikhtila are the first reported in central Myanmar since then.
The troubles in Meikhtila began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. A Buddhist monk was among the first killed, inflaming tensions that led a Buddhist mob to rampage through a Muslim neighborhood.
Violence continued Thursday, and by Friday, Win Htein, a local lawmaker from the opposition National League for Democracy, said he had counted at least 20 bodies. He said 1,200 Muslim families — at least 6,000 people — have fled their homes and taken refuge at a stadium and a police station.
There were indications, too, that the violence spread Friday to at least one village on the outskirts of Meikhtila, about 550 kilometers (340 miles) north of the main city of Yangon.
Emergency Declared In an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila in an announcement broadcast on state television. The declaration allows the military to take over administrative functions in and around the town.
He also declared a state of emergency in three nearby townships, but there were no reports of violence there.
In Meikhtila, monks accosted and threatened journalists trying to cover the unrest, at one point trying to drag a group of several out of a van. One monk, whose faced was covered, shoved a foot-long dagger at the neck of an Associated Press photographer and demanded his camera. The photographer defused the situation by handing over his camera’s memory card.
The group of nine journalists took refuge in a monastery and stayed there until a police unit was able to escort them to safety.