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Oct 22, 9:29 AM EDT

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SITTWE, Myanmar (AP) -- Hundreds of hard-line Buddhists protested Sunday to urge Myanmar's government not to repatriate the nearly 600,000 minority Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh since late August to escape violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

The protest took place in Sittwe, the state capital, where many Rohingya lived before an outbreak of inter-communal violence in 2012 forced them to flee their homes.

Aung Htay, a protest organizer, said any citizens would be welcome in the state. "But if these people don't have the right to be citizens ... the government's plan for a conflict-free zone will never be implemented," he said.

Myanmar doesn't recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group, instead insisting they are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country. Rohingya are excluded from the official 135 ethnic groups in the country and denied citizenship.

More than 580,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when Myanmar security forces began a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages. Myanmar's government has said it was responding to attacks by Muslim insurgents, but the United Nations and others have said the response was disproportionate.

Myanmar de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's government said earlier this month that it was willing to take back Rohingya refugees who fled to southeastern Bangladesh. The government has agreed to form a joint working group to start the repatriation process.

On Sunday, protesters, including some Buddhist monks, demanded that the government not take back the refugees.

"The organizers of the protest applied to get permission for a thousand people to participate in the protest, but only a few hundred showed up," said Soe Tint Swe, a local official.

Meanwhile, thousands of people gathered Sunday in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, to show support for Suu Kyi and the government's handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Colorful crowds of people, some wearing T-shirts with Suu Kyi's photo and some holding photo frames of Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party flag, took part in the rally.

The global image of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has been damaged by the violence in Rakhine, which has sparked Asia's largest refugee crisis in decades.

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