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Order restored after fresh Myanmar religious unrest

HTAN KONE, Myanmar (Reuters) - Authorities restored order in Myanmar's northern Sagaing region on Sunday after a Buddhist mob set fire to nearly two dozen Muslim-owned buildings and attacked rescue workers in the latest widening of sectarian violence in the former military-run state.

About 1,000 Buddhists, some carrying sticks and swords, attacked Muslim villagers in remote Htan Kone late on Saturday, destroying at least 20 homes and shops, according to witnesses and a government statement.

Police and soldiers arrived later and fired into the air to disperse the crowd, they said.

The violence in the rugged region about 665 km (410 miles) from the commercial capital, Yangon, shows how far anti-Muslim anger has spread in the Buddhist-dominated country following spasms of unrest in northeastern Lashio in May, central Meikhtila in March and western Rakhine State last year.

The Ministry of Information said the unrest followed the attempted rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man on Saturday. After the man was detained, about 150 villagers and three Buddhist monks gathered at the police station, demanding he be handed over to them, it said.

When the police refused, the mob rioted, destroying Muslim homes, throwing rocks at police and attacking firemen before authorities restored order by 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, the ministry said.

Police sergeant Win Nyi told Reuters 12 people from the mob had been arrested. A Reuters photographer in Htan Kone said the village was tense on Sunday evening but the violence had subsided.

Witnesses said some Muslims fled to neighboring villages or sheltered in a Muslim school.

Saya Soe, 32, a Muslim villager, said houses were already burning by the time police and soldiers arrived. "The mobs stopped and went away only after midnight when the security forces fired four or five shots into the sky."

Another Muslim resident, Azit Paing, said the cause of the unrest appears to have been an argument between a young Muslim man and a Buddhist woman, but he denied the man attempted to rape the woman.

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have threatened to undermine political and economic reforms the government initiated two years ago after half a century of military rule.

More than 200 people have been killed since June last year and 140,000 displaced. The vast majority of victims have been Muslim.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, said a 200-strong mob attacked his car during an August 22 visit to the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila, where a wave of anti-Muslim riots in March killed at least 43 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut denied Ojea Quintana had been attacked and said the U.N. envoy mistook the crowd's intentions.

(Reporting by Min Zayer Oo in Yangon and Soe Zeya Tun in Htan Kone. Writing by Jared Ferrie. Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)

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