Myanmar’s military action against the minority Muslim Rohingya population constitutes ethnic cleansing, according to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He said the Rohingya had suffered “horrendous atrocities” and as a result the US was considering targeted sanctions against those responsible.

“After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” Tillerson said in a statement.

“These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh,” he said.

As reported by the BBC, Tillerson’s comments come days before a visit to Myanmar by Pope Francis. He is due to arrive in Myanmar on November 26. His visit will include meetings with army chief General Min Aung Hlaing and the country’s de-facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Vatican has said.

The pontiff will later travel to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, where he will meet Rohingya refugees, a Vatican spokesman said.

The Rohingya are a stateless minority who have long experienced persecution in Myanmar, also known as Burma. More than 600,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since violence erupted in Rakhine state late in August.