Soldiers hold their weapons at a neighbourhood that was burned in recent violence in Sittwe. Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Myanmar has detained a dozen aid workers working for international organisations in the past month, and released just one of them, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency said on Friday.

Adrian Edwards said four Myanmar nationals working for the agency were taken by the authorities in June in areas of the country where there has been civil unrest, and three are still being held.

Two workers from the World Food Program and six from a non-UN group, Doctors Without Borders, had also been detained in several locations around Myanmar, and were still to be released, he added.

Edwards said that some of the detentions occurred in Rakhine state, an area of western Myanmar where a state of emergency was declared in June after ethnic clashes took place between Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists, many of whom consider the Rohingyas to be illegal settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh. The aid workers had been providing food, medical assistance and other help to displaced people.

He said the exact grounds on which they are being held remains unclear, and UN officials are seeking access to them.

Edwards told reporters in Geneva that discussions to free the staff are in “a delicate situation.”

Earlier this week, Myanmar's Information Ministry updated the death toll in the recent clashes in Rakhine to 78, and said that 87 others had been injured since late May. The clashes – the worst ethic violence to hit Myanmar in years – are a setback to President Thein Sein's democratic and economic reforms, launched after decades of repressive rule by a military junta.

World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the UN resident coordinator Ashok Nigam, the top UN official in Myanmar, had reported to the Myanmar government that some UN staff members had been detained for questioning by authorities in Rakhine state, and the UN is still trying to get access to them.

She said the UN has decided not to release more information about the situation “out of concern for the privacy of its staff.”

The refugee agency, meanwhile, says it has sent additional staff to Rakhine, where Myanmar authorities say more than 52 000 people have been displaced during riots.

In a statement Friday, the agency said it has been assessing the needs of people in 30 different places, and handed out blankets, temporary shelter, cooking sets and mosquito nets to 5 000 people. – Sapa-AP