Myanmar is seeking the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority from its territory, a senior UN official has told the BBC.
Armed forces have been killing Rohingya in Rakhine state, forcing many to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, says John McKissick of the UN refugee agency.
The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been conducting counter-insurgency operations since coordinated attacks on border guards in October.
It denies reports of atrocities.
Burmese officials say Rohingyas are setting fire to their own houses in northern Rakhine state. The BBC cannot visit the area to verify what is occurring there as journalists and aid workers have been barred.
The Rohingya, who number about one million, are seen by many of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Although Bangladesh’s official policy is not to allow in illegal entrants across the border, the foreign ministry has confirmed that thousands of Rohingyas have already sought refuge in Bangladesh. Thousands more are reportedly gathering on the border.
Efforts to resolve the issue must focus on “the root cause” inside Myanmar, Mr McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar told BBC Bengali’s Akbar Hossain.
He said the Myanmar military and Border Guard Police had “engaged in collective punishment of the Rohingya minority” after the murders of nine border guards on 9 October which some politicians blamed on a Rohingya militant group.
Security forces have been “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river” into Bangladesh, Mr McKissick said.
“Now it’s very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Bangladesh foreign ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express “deep concern” over the military operation in northern Rakhine state.
It said “desperate people” were crossing the border seeking safety and shelter and asked Myanmar to “ensure the integrity of its border”.
Authorities in Bangladesh have been detaining and repatriating hundreds of fleeing Rohingya.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which it said showed that more than 1,000 homes had been razed in Rohingya villages over the past six weeks.
What is happening in Rakhine state?
A massive security operation was launched last month after nine police officers were killed in co-ordinated attacks on border posts in Maungdaw.
Some government officials blamed a militant Rohingya group for the attacks. Security forces then sealed off access to Maungdaw district and launched a counter-insurgency operation.
Rohingya activists say more than 100 people have been killed and hundreds arrested amid the crackdown.
Soldiers have also been accused of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and executions, which the government has flatly denied.
It says militants have attacked helicopter gunships providing air support to troops.
Who are the Rohingya?
The estimated one million Muslim Rohingya are seen by many in mainly Buddhist Myanmar as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship by the government despite many having lived there for generations.
Communal violence in Rakhine state in 2012 left scores dead and displaced more than 100,000 people, with many Rohingya still remaining in decrepit camps.
They face widespread discrimination and mistreatment.
Is the government to blame?
Myanmar held its first openly contested election in 25 years last November, with Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy winning a landslide victory.
Though she is barred from the presidency due to a constitutional rule, Ms Suu Kyi, who serves as State Counsellor, is seen as de-facto leader.
But her government, led as it is by a former human rights icon, has faced international criticism over the dire situation in Rakhine state.
Rights groups have questioned why journalists and aid workers are not being allowed to enter northern Rakhine.
Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay says the international media is misreporting what is going on.