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Myanmar building, but no sign Rohingya are returning

TAUNGPYO, Myanmar — Workers on the Myanmar side of the border with Bangladesh laid bricks, dug ditches and drilled holes in building frames in preparation Wednesday for the possible repatriation of some of the Rohingya Muslims who have poured into Bangladesh in what's become the world's worst refugee crisis.

There was no sign, however, of any of the nearly 700,000 Rohingya chased away by Myanmar security forces.

Myanmar invited journalists from The Associated Press and other media to the border to show it's ready for a gradual repatriation. But Bangladesh says it needs more time to prepare for the transfer.

The refugees, meanwhile, are deeply skeptical, if not outright terrified, about returning to a place where they say their homes were burned, their wives, sisters and mothers raped, and their friends, relatives and neighbors slaughtered.

This means that, despite the construction efforts on the Myanmar side of the border, no repatriation seems likely any time soon.

Myanmar officials and security forces stood near the barb-wired border fence at the transition camp, but Rohingya in Bangladesh said they've seen no major preparation for refugees to return safely to their destroyed homes in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine.

"Myanmar is just getting ready by itself, but we are not going unless there are promises made for us," Ko Ko Lin, a member of Arakan Rohingya National Organization, said by phone.

The two countries have agreed to a two-year repatriation process that was set to begin Tuesday. But officials in Bangladesh on Monday said a number of issues remained unresolved, in particular worries that refugees were being forced to return.

After documents and lists of people are exchanged between the two governments, the Myanmar government will then check the returnees to see if they are on the lists, said Ko Ko Thaw, a Myanmar immigration officer at the reception camp in the northern part of Rakhine. Only refugees with identity documents, which most Rohingya lack, will be allowed back into Myanmar.

In the sprawling camps that cover the hills south of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, along the border with Myanmar, many Rohingya say they'll only to return to their obliterated villages if there's strong outside monitoring of their safety and living conditions.

"How can we go back to Myanmar without anyone guaranteeing our security," said Alam, a Rohingya in the Bulakhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, who, like many Rohingya, goes only by one name. "If we would be given homes in our villages that were burned, then we will go back."

More than 680,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape a crackdown by Myanmar's military that began following attacks by a Rohingya militant group on Aug. 25. The United Nations and the United States have described the crackdown as "ethnic cleansing." The U.N. human rights chief has also suggested that it may be genocide.

Many in Myanmar see Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, although many families have lived in Myanmar for generations. They have been denied citizenship, freedom of movement and other basic rights.

A total of more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, but international aid workers, local officials and the refugees themselves say preparations for repatriation are far from complete.

The two countries have signed an agreement to begin sending people home in "safety, security and dignity," but rights groups have expressed worry about Rohingya returning to villages they left only months ago in terror. According to the U.N. refugee agency and other rights groups, Rohingya are still fleeing across the border into Bangladesh, although the numbers are smaller than in previous months.

Klug reported from Yangon, Myanmar.