Two children died, another was left critically ill, and more than 10 other people were injured after a shell exploded at a crowded market in the conflict-torn Kokang region of northern Myanmar on Tuesday, witnesses said.
The shell, believed to have been fired by government forces amid intense fighting with ethnic Kokang rebels, hit the New Agricultural and Trading Goods Market in Laukkai on Tuesday morning as it was thronged with civilians and young families, according to medical staff who saw the aftermath.
Two brothers were killed outright, while their eight-year-old sister was taken to the neighboring Chinese province of Yunnan for emergency treatment, an aid worker told RFA.
"The injured child has already been taken to the county hospital in Nansan," an aid worker surnamed Zhao at the No. 125 Border Post refugee camp said. "No expense will be spared to send her on to the Lincang City Hospital, and if they can't treat her, direct to [the provincial capital] Kunming."
He added: "She was about seven or eight. The injuries were to her head."
Zhao said the girl's two brothers had been killed outright in the blast. "I was just at the scene, and we took their bodies and cremated them," he said, adding: "It was a terrible scene; I could barely look. I was in tears. This is so inhumane."
Photos from the scene seen by RFA showed the dead bodies of the two boys and the girl, apparently unconsciously, being held by her mother.
At least 10 injured
Zhao said at least 10 people had been sent for medical treatment in China for injuries connected to the shelling.
He said he didn't know which side in the conflict, which began in Laukkai on Feb. 9, fired the shell.
"All I know is that it was an artillery shell," he said.
Local sources told RFA the shell was likely fired by government troops, who have engaged Kokang rebel alliance fighters in intense fighting in an area known in Chinese as Nantianmen Mountain.
Heavy shelling resumed on Monday following a temporary cease-fire that lasted less than 24 hours. But according to local residents, the Kokang rebels have no artillery emplacements around Laukkai.
They said the shell had likely come from government artillery located in an area outside Laukkai known in Chinese as Mixiangou, and had likely been aimed at rebel forces and gone astray.
Fighting began on Feb. 9 in Laukkai between Myanmar government troops and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebel forces.
The MNDAA under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng is trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which it had controlled until 2009, forcing an estimated 100,000 refugees away from the conflict zone and across the border into China.
New refugee facility
An aid worker surnamed Li at a refugee camp in Maidihe, which straddles the border, said the authorities in Yunnan appeared to have relented and allowed some 1,000 refugees to re-enter a new facility on the Chinese side after forcing thousands of refugees back to the Myanmar side of the border last week.
"We have some 4,000 people on this side, and another 1,000 elsewhere," Li said. "Some 1,000 people have already moved into a refugee camp on the Chinese side."
"Some of those who didn't want to go to China have returned to their homes."
He said the new camp is called Dayuntang. "They opened up a refugee camp there three days ago," Li said.
"It's probably because the fighting has intensified, and because of international pressure," he said.
Beijing has been at pains to distance itself from involvement in the Kokang conflict following tensions with Myanmar's ruling military junta over the role played by its citizens in supporting the
ethnically Chinese Kokang side.
Peng's dangerous gamble
Li said many older refugees had refused to go to China because they weren't allowed to take their livestock with them, and there was no-one to care for them in Kokang.
The MNDAA is allied with three other ethnic minority armies: the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and part of the Shan State Army (SSA), although the KIA has remained in the region it controls, rather than fighting alongside MNDAA troops.
Further south, in the Shan town of Lashio, Chinese-speaking ethnic Kokang residents said Peng may have miscalculated in taking on the army, which has superior fire power and holds the region.
A Lashio resident surnamed Li said much of the online debate over the conflict was being framed as a bid for greater autonomy by Myanmar's ethnic Chinese, making Peng's battle for hearts and minds even trickier.
"This allows the Myanmar government to claim the higher moral ground of maintaining order," Li said.
"It's hard to say that Peng Jiasheng is in the wrong, but he is in the last stage of his life, and he wants to take Laukkai [before he dies]," he said. "He was gambling on other armed ethnic groups taking their cue from him, creating an opportunity in the midst of chaos."
"But this time, he has miscalculated, and the gamble hasn't paid off," Li said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Lee Tung for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.