YAMETHIN, Myanmar (AFP) - Dozens of houses and a mosque have been torched as communal violence spread in central Myanmar, officials said Sunday, defying authorities’ efforts to quell deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.

Fresh violence on Saturday night left more than 40 houses and the mosque in ruins in Yamethin township near the capital Naypyidaw, a ward official said, while unrest was also reported in three other villages in the area. “Most of the houses belong to Muslims,” the Yamethin official said on condition of anonymity, adding no one was believed injured. “This kind of case has never happened here.”

The latest flare-up began Wednesday in the town of Meiktila, 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Naypyidaw, leaving at least 32 people dead and displacing about 9,000 more as neighbourhoods were razed.

The government announced an army-enforced state of emergency. More than 50 people were detained in connection with the violence, according to the information ministry, while people were also detained at the villages closer to the capital.

The clashes were a stark reminder of the challenge which Muslim-Buddhist tensions pose to Myanmar’s quasi-civilian regime as it tries to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule. It was the most serious religious conflict since violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine last year left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.

Confirmation of the renewed violence came hours after a United Nations envoy visited the rubble-strewn streets of Meiktila and met some of the displaced from both communities. Vijay Nambiar, the UN special adviser on Myanmar, expressed sadness at the death and destruction but said residents want to rebuild their shattered lives.

Buddhist and Muslim leaders also Sunday spoke out publicly for the first time since the violence began, urging respect for the law and the maintenance of “community harmony with love and kindness”.

An uneasy peace prevailed in Meiktila on Sunday, with shops reopening and police and army patrols keeping order after three days of rioting which saw armed mobs - including monks - take control of the streets.

But the fresh clashes elsewhere have borne out the fears of the international community, who had previously warned of the risks of the unrest spreading.

“Things happened so fast,” said a woman in Yamethin, requesting anonymity. “Some people were destroying the houses... we have no idea who. We are so sorry. We do not want things to happen like this.”

The township is beyond the remit of the state of emergency, signed by President Thein Sein, to enable the army to help restore order after last week’s rioting. The decree was a significant move in a country trying to shake off the legacy of junta rule, which ended two years ago.

Myanmar’s Muslims - largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent - account for an estimated four percent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.

Religious violence has occasionally broken out in the past in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions. Since violence erupted there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingya - including a growing number of women and children - have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders have called for calm in violence-hit central Myanmar and urged the government to step up security for both communities, state media said Sunday.

The Interfaith Friendship Organisation called on the government “to lay effective security plans and provide security to people of the two communities”.

The statement, signed by Buddhist and Muslim leaders and carried in the state-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar, asked followers of different religions to obey the law and “maintain the community harmony with love and kindness“.

The leaders are the first religious figures to speak out publicly since riots hit Meiktila, 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of the capital Naypyidaw, last Wednesday, leaving buildings torched and charred bodies in the streets.

Urging people from all communities to step back from violence, the Interfaith Friendship Organisation, which also includes Christian and Hindu community leaders, said the clashes were posing a threat to Myanmar’s progress.