Death toll in Myanmar air strike rises to 165, while threat of attack remains

Rescue workers say they are frantically cremating bodies amid the risky security situation.
By RFA Burmese
Death toll in Myanmar air strike rises to 165, while threat of attack remains Relief workers cremate body parts from people killed by the Myanmar military junta’s strike on Pa Zi Gyi village, Kanbalu township, Sagaing region on April 11, 2023.
Citizen Journalist

The number of people killed in an air strike seen as one of the worst attacks on civilians by Myanmar’s junta since a military coup two years ago has risen to 165, the country’s shadow government said Thursday.

The attack, in which jets bombed and helicopters strafed the opening ceremony for a public administration building in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region on Tuesday, is the latest example of the military’s increasing reliance on air power in its multifront conflict with armed resistance groups, who have enjoyed growing success on the ground.

Rescue worker Nway Oo told RFA Burmese that 130 bodies had been cremated as of Thursday morning. But he said workers are struggling to comb through unidentified remains amid the ongoing threat of a military attack. Hours after the air strike on Tuesday, junta troops again attacked the site, killing three rescue workers.

“The gender of some of the bodies cannot be determined,” Nway Oo said. “Some of their bodies were too disfigured to even identify whether they were male or female.”

The remains of only 59 people were identifiable, he said, while the rest of the bodies “had to be picked up part by part and buried.”

Initial reports from the site in Kanbalu township’s Pa Zi Gyi village said at least 83 bodies had been cremated, including those of 22 minors, although sources told RFA Burmese that rescue efforts and the collection of remains had been hampered by by a continued military presence in the area, as well as the scale of the devastation from the attack. 

Witnesses have said that it was hard to tell how many people had died because the bodies were so badly mangled by the bombs and machine gun fire.

The country’s shadow National Unity Government – made up of members of the former civilian government and other individuals who oppose the junta – announced that the death toll at Pa Zi Gyi had risen to 165, including 27 women and 19 minors. In a statement, the NUG said efforts are still underway to identify victims and that the number of dead is “likely to increase.”

While the statement did not include the exact number of people injured by the air strike, it said at least 17 people had been “seriously wounded” and underwent major surgery.

Ongoing threat of attack

Residents told RFA military jets have occasionally been seen flying over the village to survey the site, while a column of more than 80 troops has been stationed around two miles to the east.

Ko Myo, a resident of Pa Zi Gyi, said rescue workers were frantically cremating remains amid the risky security situation.

“We have brought in some car tires [to build pyres],” he said. “We’ve had to [cremate] urgently, as the military’s planes are still flying around. We have to collect as many bodies as possible and cremate them before we leave.”

The aftermath of the airstrike on Pa Zi Gyi village in Sagaing region's Kanbalu township, Myanmar, Tuesday, April 11, 2023. Credit: Kyunhla Activists Group via AP
The aftermath of the airstrike on Pa Zi Gyi village in Sagaing region's Kanbalu township, Myanmar, Tuesday, April 11, 2023. Credit: Kyunhla Activists Group via AP
Meanwhile, Pa Zi Gyi has become a ghost town, as more than 800 residents of the 100-home village have fled since the attack and are too frightened to return while the threat of another raid looms, Ko Myo said.

A resident who gave his name as Maung Oo told RFA he had lost six family members in the air strike, and said he will never forgive the junta for carrying out such a brutal act.

“My youngest brother, brother-in-law, grandfather, aunties, niece and nephews were among the dead,” he said, calling those responsible for the attack “animals.”

“We must take up any available weapons and fight back. I will never stop fighting them even if I have to give up my life.”

Holding the junta accountable

Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, the NUG’s minister of women, youths and children affairs, said the shadow government is working to hold the junta accountable for Tuesday’s attack and other atrocities visited on the people of Myanmar.

“Attacks targeting innocent civilians are very serious war crimes … under both international and domestic laws,” she said. “That is why we are working to prosecute those who are responsible in both local and international criminal courts.”

The military confirmed in a statement on Tuesday evening that it had carried out a “precision” attack on Pa Zi Gyi because members of the anti-junta People Defense Force paramilitary group had gathered there and “committed terrorist acts” in the area.

Junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun told the military-controlled broadcast channel MRTV that those killed in the strike were members of the PDF, not civilians, and that the large number of casualties was the result of a rebel weapons cache exploding during the operation.

But rescue workers have disputed that account. They say the attack on the site was deliberate and thorough, beginning with a jet fighter bombing run and followed by an Mi-35 helicopter strafing the area.

Residents of Pa Zi Gyi whose family members were killed have called on the international community to take effective action against the junta and to block sales of jet fuel, weapons and ammunition to the regime.

On Thursday, Indonesia, the 2023 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, issued a statement on the bloc’s behalf two days after the United Nations and United States condemned the attack.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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