YANGON, Myanmar — President Thein Sein said Thursday that his government would use force if necessary to quell deadly religious rioting that started last week, as attacks on Muslims by Buddhist mobs continued in several towns.
In his first comments on the violence, Thein Sein warned in a televised speech that he would make all legal efforts to stop political opportunists and religious extremists trying to sow hatred between faiths.
Police announced Thursday that 42 people have been killed, 37 religious buildings and 1,227 houses have been damaged or destroyed, and 68 arrests have been made in the three regions since the recent unrest started on March 20.
The violence began with rioting by Buddhists targeting minority Muslims in the central city of Meikhtila, which drove about 12,000 people from their homes. It spread this week to several towns in the Bago region, about 100 miles north of the country’s biggest city, Yangon. One incident was reported near Naypyitaw, the capital.
Although curfews and bans on public gatherings have been imposed in the affected areas, state television reported that groups of people attacked houses, shops, and religious buildings on Thursday in two towns in Bago. On Wednesday, it reported that security forces fired shots into the air to break up attacks, which residents said targeted Muslim properties.
‘‘In general, I do not endorse the use of force to solve problems,’’ Thein Sein said. “However, I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public.’’