Intense fighting broke out early Friday between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA) near a village in Minbya township in western Myanmar’s war-stricken Rakhine state, with the government army attacking the enemy from helicopters days after artillery shells from hostilities forced 400 area residents to flee to safety.
“There were continuous small-arms fire and shelling in the mountains east of Shwegyin village around 9 a.m.,” said a resident who requested anonymity because the person feared being targeted by the Myanmar Army.
“Two helicopters flew around the mountains for about 20 minutes and fired from the air,” the witness told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Many villagers fled yesterday and today.”
Some villagers ran away to escape intense fighting near the community, while others hid in bomb shelters under their homes, residents said.
It was not clear how many villagers fled their homes in the latest clash or if any were killed amid the helicopter attacks.
Some residents said they did not dare leave Shwegyin village because more than 200 Myanmar Army soldiers have been stationed outside the village since Tuesday.
When artillery shells began falling in the village that day, more than 400 of the 1,900 people living in the community fled to safety in nearby villages, they said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha confirmed that Myanmar forces had carried out air attacks during Friday’s clash in the mountains near Shwegyin village.
“Later they used helicopters to randomly bomb the mountains nearby,” he said.
He also said Myanmar forces launched aerial attacks against Arakan troops during the battles in Rakhine’s Paletwa township earlier this week.
Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command, which is responsible for Rakhine state, said that government troops were carrying out clearance operations upon receiving information that the AA had set up temporary camps near Shwegyin village.
“The battle started around 9 a.m. this morning and lasted until 1 p.m.,” he said. “It is true that heavy artillery was used to help the infantry troops so that they could capture the hill.”
“I don’t know about aerial shootings,” he said. “We do have surveillance planes if needed.”
When asked earlier this week about the Myanmar Army’s use of aerial attacks against the AA, military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said troops would resort to using helicopters when necessary.
“We talked about it during the recent President’s Office press conference” he told RFA. “We will use the required resources when it is necessary. This is a military operation against an insurgency. We said during the press conference that we have given our forces permission to use helicopters as well as fighter jets if necessary.”
Hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA, an ethnic Rakhine army that seeks greater autonomy in the state, intensified in late 2018 and again in early January after Arakan fighters carried out deadly attacks on police outposts.
Soldiers detain laborers
In a related development, Myanmar forces detained nearly 20 laborers from two villages in Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township, said the sister of one of the detainees on Friday, in the latest instance of civilians being detained by soldiers.
Among the detainees are five carpenters from Waitharli village who were working on a construction project at a local Buddhist temple and about 14 laborers digging stones at a road construction site near Pauktaw Byin village, said Oo Tin Nyunt, sister of detainee Zaw Lin Aung.
“They were building an ordination hall on the grounds of the Waitharli temple, and they were arrested when they went to Waitharli village for lunch around 11:30 a.m.,” she told RFA.
The carpenters showed the soldiers their identification cards and recommendation letters from the temple’s treasurer, while the temple's abbot informed them that the men were working on the construction of the hall, she said.
“But it didn’t help,” Oo Tin Nyunt said. “I was told that they were needed as guides and that they would be released around 8 p.m. But they were not released. They were not allowed to meet with the village chairman or secretary, and we don’t know where they are being detained.”
During the conflict, Myanmar soldiers have detained civilians for questioning if they are suspected of having ties to Arakan fighters, while they have forced others to work as porters or guides.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said Myanmar forces apprehended eight “suspects” near Waitharli village on Thursday.
“They had no weapons,” he said. “Four of them are from Pauktaw Byin village. Troops are trying to find out if they are members of the AA and have sent them to the Mrauk-U police station.”
After police question the detainees, those who are cleared will be released, while those who are not will be charged, he added.
Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker representing Mrauk-U in the Rakhine state parliament, told RFA that he learned about the detainees after receiving calls from their families.
“They have not been released yet,” he said, adding that the families have asked him for help with winning the discharge of their detained relatives.
Gunfire from clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA in Pauktaw Byin village on Thursday evening had prompted villagers to flee, said resident Oo Tin Nyunt.
“There was intense firing last night,” she told RFA. “It started around 5 p.m. yesterday.”
“[I] don’t know where the artillery fire came from and dared not go out to check,” she said. “They [the soldiers] are arresting anyone in sight, so all the adult males have fled out of fear.”
Since December 2018, more than 50 civilians have been killed, with over 100 injured and more than 40,000 displaced amid fighting between the AA and government forces.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.