A military artillery attack on a Kachin rebel stronghold in northern Burma killed three civilians and left at least four others wounded on Monday, according to a spokesman for the ethnic group’s political wing and a victim of the shelling.
The bombardment is believed to be the first military assault to directly target Laiza town, the rebel capital in Burma’s Kachin State, which lies along the country’s northern border with China. Earlier shelling had hit hills surrounding the town.
Casualties included victims as young as 15 and as old as 76, according to La Nan, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighting years for greater autonomy.
“They fired artillery this morning, including 105 mm and 155 mm rounds, into the heart of Laiza, which is a crowded place. Most people in this area are refugees,” La Nan told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“Three civilians died. Four others were wounded and sent to the hospital in serious condition,” he said.
La Nan said that some of the victims had been listening to news on the radio while making a campfire for warmth on what was a cold morning when the shells hit.
“The first shell landed and exploded in this place where they had gathered. That was the worst explosion which killed two and wounded others,” he said.
“After a few minutes, another shell exploded on the other side of the road, killing a 15-year-old boy.”
La Nan said that the three civilians who were killed in the attack were among those who had fled to Laiza to escape earlier fighting in other parts of Kachin State.
“The dead are Hpauyu Doi San Awng, 15, Nhkum Bawk Naw, and Hpungtau Malang Yaw, 76. They were all refugees,” he said.
“Two girls, aged 2 and 8, are among the wounded.”
La Nan said that residents of Laiza were making funeral preparations for the three dead refugees.
Agence France-Presse quoted another KIO official as saying that six civilians had been wounded in addition to the three killed in the attack.
Kachin sources said the attack had created panic in Laiza, which is home to some 20,000 residents and around 15,000 internally displaced people who have fled fighting between the KIA and the Burmese military since June 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire agreement was shattered.
“The place that was hit by an artillery shell was just 200 meters (660 feet) away from me while I was making a campfire to get warm,” Tu Mine, a Laiza resident, told RFA’s Burmese Service from a town hall where he is now staying.
“I was able to run away as the shell was landing near me,” he said.
“I can’t say what the attitude of Burma’s government is or why they don’t want to make peace. But we, the local people, want peace.”
Tu Mine said that many of Laiza’s residents have now left the town to find shelter from the fighting, with a number of people trying to enter China. In August, China pushed several thousand refugees back into Burma and last week stationed a large number of troops at the border.
Ye Htut, a spokesperson for Burmese President Thein Sein’s office, wrote in a Facebook post that the military had neither flown helicopters nor planes in the vicinity of Laiza on Monday and had not fired any artillery shells at the town.
“We need an independent confirmation explaining why those artillery shells exploded in the area today,” he wrote.
Ye Htut told AFP that the army did not "intentionally" target civilians.
According to La Nan, the Burmese military first began shelling the area around Laiza in November last year, hitting sites within KIA territory. But he said that Monday’s attack was the first to target downtown Laiza.
“[The military] used airstrikes on Dec. 28, with planes flying over Laiza and firing on KIA outposts [outside the town], but they have never fired directly into Laiza in the past,” La Nan said.
“The local people have been worried and concerned ever since.”
He charged that the Burmese government was making daily use of state-controlled media to broadcast propaganda to the Burmese people, telling them that the KIA was responsible for acts of sabotage and attacks on Burmese civilians.
“But we have evidence that the government has burned Kachin villages, arresting and shooting people since fighting intensified between the military and the KIA in November last year,” he said.
“Regarding this morning’s event, there is no reason to deny having killed civilians.”
La Nan said that the KIO had repeatedly urged the Burmese government to engage in peace talks and political dialogue “without restrictions on topics.”
“But whenever we urge the government to engage us politically, we are rebuffed with attacks,” he said.
“If we can hold political talks with the government, we would definitely hold negotiations for peace.”
Monday’s shelling attack followed condemnation from the U.S. and United Nations last week for the military’s use of air strikes against the Kachin during the recent uptick in fighting.
The intensified attacks on the Kachin have called into question the sincerity of the new government’s commitment to national reconciliation, less than two years after taking power from Burma’s former military junta and pledging to implement ambitious democratic reforms.
The government has signed cease-fire agreements with 10 ethnic groups, but experts say it is unclear whether Thein Sein, a general during the rule of Burma’s former military regime, exerts control over the country’s army after an order he issued in December 2011 to end military offensives against ethnic rebels was apparently ignored.
Despite the 10 cease-fire agreements, fighting has been ongoing in Shan, Kayin, and Kachin states. Multiple rounds of talks with the Kachin have yielded little progress.
The army and the rebels have traded claims over a helicopter crash last week which killed three members of the military. State media said the crash was a result of engine failure, while the KIA claims to have shot it down.
Red Cross visit
Monday's attack also came as the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, made the first-ever visit to Burma by an ICRC president on Sunday to investigate the situation of people affected by intercommunal violence.
During his visit, Maurer will hold a series of meetings with Thein Sein, with other senior officials, and with the chairman of the Myanmar [Burma] Red Cross Society, Tha Hla Shwe.
Maurer said the Burmese government had “signaled its readiness to discuss a number of humanitarian issues with us” in a statement on the ICRC website, and called his visit “a significant step forward in our dialogue and in strengthening our relationship with the [Burmese] authorities.”
He said discussions would also focus on “the issue of broader access to conflict-affected areas such as Kachin and Kayin states where we stand ready to aid and improve the well-being of people affected by conflict or violence.”
Maurer said he would also discuss access to places of detention and to western Burma’s Rakhine state, which was rattled by secular violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities last year.
Myanmar Red Cross Chairman Tha Hla Shwe told RFA’s Burmese Service that his organization would work together with the ICRC to help resolve the problems in Kachin and Rakhine states.
Reported by Tin Aung Khaine, Nyein Nyein Pyae, and Kin Khin Ei for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.