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Myanmar officials 'in denial' over U.N. report on crimes against Rohingya

By Serajul Quadir and Simon Lewis

DHAKA/YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's government remains "in denial" about alleged atrocities by its military against minority Rohingya Muslims, officials present at a meeting in Bangladesh said, despite leader Aung San Suu Kyi's pledge to investigate the findings of a devastating U.N. report.

The closed-door meeting of diplomats, government officials and international agencies in Dhaka follows a report last week from the United Nations human rights office that said soldiers committed mass killings and gang rapes in a "calculated policy of terror" in Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine State in recent months.

"When Bangladesh cited the horrific acts by Myanmar's law enforcing agencies, the Myanmar representative did not agree with this and was in complete denial," said H.T. Imam, a political advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was at the meeting.

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Three international diplomats also present at the Sunday meeting broadly corroborated that account.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told the New York Times that Suu Kyi had appeared "genuinely moved" by the harrowing 43-page report, released on Friday, expressing no defensiveness or denial.

While the Nobel Peace Prize laureate does not have control of the security forces, which remain powerful under Myanmar's military-drafted constitution, she controls the ministries of foreign affairs and information, which have shaped the country's public response to the four-month-old crisis in Rakhine.

Suu Kyi has been criticized in the West for not speaking out about abuses against the Rohingya.

Myanmar has previously denied almost all reports of killings, rapes and arson in northwest Rakhine, where it says its army is engaged in a lawful counterinsurgency campaign.

Aye Aye Soe, deputy director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters on Monday that Myanmar took the U.N. findings seriously and would investigate.

But she added that the country had been the victim of "disinformation, misinformation and fake news" on the issue that meant "the international community seems to have made up its mind".

"We don't know if these allegations are true," said Aye Aye Soe. "If we find that these allegations are true, we will take action."

"ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS"

About 1.1 million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship. Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, while the authorities in Dhaka say they are Myanmar nationals and must ultimately go back.

Since the military operation began on Oct. 9, about 69,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. The U.N. report was based on accounts gathered in January from 220 of them.

Sunday's meeting in Dhaka was focused on Bangladesh's plan to relocate hundreds of thousands of refugees from makeshift camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

A Myanmar diplomat also complained at the meeting about Bangladesh's description of the Rohingya refugees crossing the border as "undocumented Myanmar nationals".

The presence of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh has strained relations between the two countries.

Myanmar has said it is willing to discuss the return of those who have crossed the border since October, but is only willing to take back 2,415 of those who arrived before then.

"Whether the person is a citizen or not would depend on verification by Myanmar and Bangladesh together. Without going through the process you can't – one-sided - just label them as our citizens," said Aye Aye Soe.

"You should call them illegal migrants or undocumented people or illegal refugees or whatever."

Myanmar has said the allegations contained in the U.N. report would be investigated by its own commission on Rakhine, headed by Vice-President U Myint Swe, a former general.

Zaw Myint Pe, the secretary of that commission, said it had been unable to substantiate any allegations of rape in northern Rakhine since it began its work in December.

Describing the testimony of one woman he said: "The way she was talking to us, it seemed like someone had been teaching her. It was difficult to accept that it must be true."

Zaw Myint Pe added that Rohingya villages were like "mazes", where insurgents could easily shoot at troops, and the confusion caused might have resulted in acts of indiscipline.

"So the soldiers might be angry, there might be abuses of power from the government troops," he said.

(Additional reporting by Wa Lone in Yangon and Antoni Slodkowski in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh; Editing by Alex Richardson)