A helicopter attack by Myanmar’s army on Wednesday killed at least 10 Rohingya Muslims and injured more than a dozen others in violence-wracked Rakhine state, the latest civilian casualties in the armed conflict between government soldiers and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), local villagers told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Area residents said that the Rohingya had been killed and wounded during fighting between the two armed forces that occurred at noon near Buthidaung township’s Sai Din mountain range.
Military helicopters fired while Rohingya civilians were working at the Sai Din bamboo production site in the afternoon, they said.
“It’s said that more than 10 were killed, but no people and no boats can go there,” said a Rohingya who claimed to be a relative of one of the victims killed in the helicopter attack. “So far, seven bodies have been recovered and brought back to the village.”
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military's information team confirmed that the battle took place.
“It appears to be Buthidaung township and north of Yae Soe Chaung [village],” he said. “The battle took place at midday yesterday.”
But he referred an RFA reporter to Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command responsible for Rakhine state, for details about the Rohingya causalities.
RFA was unable to reach Win Zaw Oo because his mobile phone was switched off.
AA spokesperson Khine Thukha denied that Arakan forces engaged in combat with Myanmar troops in the area where the helicopter attack occurred.
“There was no fighting with us in that area,” he said. “There was no battle yesterday in the entire area.”
“The Myanmar Army has routinely fired artillery and bombs indiscriminately,” he said.
Local news and wire reports cited different casualty numbers.
The Arakan news agency Narinjara reported that six people were killed and 19 injured, citing a Muslim elder in Phon Nyo Leik village, while Myanmar's Development Media Group said 11 died and 13 were wounded, quoting Abu Phwe Yaw, head worker at the Sai Din bamboo production site.
The online journal The Irrawaddy reported that least six Rohingya casual laborers died and more than 10 were wounded, according to a military spokesman and witnesses. Reuters news agency said that five people were killed and 13 were wounded, citing local villagers and a Rakhine lawmaker.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said in late March that the fighting had claimed the lives of 58 AA soldiers, 27 policemen, and 12 civilians between Jan. 4 and March 28.
The Myanmar military said it would release the number of soldier deaths at a later unspecified date.
Number of IDPs rises
The clashes have pushed the number of displaced civilians up to an estimated 26,500 from nearly 6,100 households in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Minbya, and Mrauk-U townships, said Rakhine state spokesman and municipal affairs minister Win Myint on Thursday.
The estimation, which covers residents living in temporary shelters, could be higher if displaced civilians in other areas are added, he said.
The Rakhine Ethnic Congress puts the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at nearly 28,700 as of April 2, and said the figure climbed in recent days as more villagers caught up in the conflict fled their homes and now face harsh living conditions.
Win Myint said authorities are providing basic necessities for the IDPs, including rice and clothing. The central government has also provided funding for relief supplies, though local NGO workers have told RFA that IDPs in some camps face acute drinking water and food shortages.
Hostilities between the Myanmar Army and AA reignited in late 2018 and further escalated in early January after the AA attacked police outposts, killing 13 officers and wounding nine others. Another AA assault on police outposts in March left nine officers dead and two others injured.
Amid the armed conflict, northern Rakhine is still trying to recover from a brutal military-led crackdown that began in 2017 in response to attacks on guard stations, driving some 740,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
Many residents and the AA have blamed Myanmar forces for firing indiscriminately into Rakhine villages during the hostilities, though military officials have denied the charge, saying that their troops have fired only in response to AA offensives.
The Myanmar military in turn has accused the AA of spreading fake news about the fighting and said that Arakan troops have disguised themselves as local residents of areas where clashes occur. The AA has denied the assertions as psychological warfare.
The government army has also accused the AA of landmine attacks in conflict areas in Rakhine, with Zaw Htay putting the number of mine explosions at 44 since early January.
On Thursday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that 48 civilians, including 16 children, were killed by landmines in Myanmar in 2018 and urged all parties involved in armed conflict to stop laying new mines and protect children’s lives.
Though many incidents go unreported, casualty reports from landmines and other explosives increased to 276 in 2018, including 56 children with 16 deaths and 40 injuries, from 176 in 2017, UNICEF said in a statement.
“Children should never be a target of violence,” said June Kunugi, UNICEF's representative to Myanmar. “We must all continue to work together to make every child and every community protected from landmines and other explosive ordinance.”
Nine of Myanmar’s 15 states and regions contain landmines, explosive remnants of war, and other improvised explosive devices, with war-torn Kachin and Shan states the areas most affected between 2015 and 2018, UNICEF said.
Myanmar is not a state party to the 20-year-old Mine Ban Treaty which aims to eliminate the use of landmines against humans around the world.
Reported by Htet Arkar, Nandar Chann, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.