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Mosque, Muslim shops attacked near Myanmar's biggest city

YANGON (Reuters) - Rioters attacked a mosque and Muslim businesses in central Myanmar on Tuesday, police said, the closest a series of sectarian clashes pitting Muslims against majority Buddhists has come to the commercial capital Yangon.

Roaming gangs armed with bricks smashed the mosque's windows and looted dozens of shops after a Muslim woman collided with a Buddhist monk while walking in the street, angering residents, a police statement said.

"Police had to disperse the crowd by firing warning shots," presidential spokesman Ye Htut said in a statement on his Facebook page. He said order had been restored in Oakkan village, 100 km (60 miles) north of Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and by far its largest city.

Sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, who make up about five percent of Myanmar's population, have regularly erupted since a quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011 after five decades of military dictatorship.

Rioting broke out in March in the central town of Meikhtila and led to the deaths of 44 people, with 13,000 displaced.

The government declared a state of emergency after three days of violence, but attacks on Muslims spread southward towards the capital, Naypyitaw, and reached areas just a few hours drive from Yangon.

Radical monks have been accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence through speeches delivered throughout the country and disseminated on recordings sold at shops and street stalls.

Seven Muslim men are on trial in Meikhtila charged with murdering a monk, seen as a spark that set off the riots.

A witness in Oakkan, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that monks had tried to subdue the crowd.

Systematic attacks on stateless Rohingya Muslims erupted in western Rakhine state in June and October last year. More than 200 people died and 120,000 were driven from their homes.

A government report on the Rakhine violence recommended on Monday an increase in the numbers of security forces, accused by rights group Human Rights Watch of complicity in the "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingyas.

(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Paul Carsten and Ron Popeski)

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