BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s military has been accused of launching an airstrike on a camp for displaced persons in the northern state of Kachin that killed about 30 people, including about a dozen children, Kachin militants and activists and local media said Tuesday.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, triggering widespread popular opposition. After peaceful demonstrations were put down with lethal force, many opponents of military rule took up arms, and large parts of the country are now embroiled in conflict.
Col. Naw Bu, a spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Army, said 29 people including 11 children under the age of 16 were killed and 57 others injured in the attacks carried out by air and artillery late Monday. The casualties occurred at the Mung Lai Hkyet displacement camp in the northern part of Laiza, a town where the headquarters of the rebel KIA is based, about 324 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city.
A spokesperson for Kachin Human Rights Watch gave slightly different figures, saying 19 adults and 13 children were killed in the attack, which occurred shortly before midnight.
The military government in the past year has stepped up the use of airstrikes in combat against two enemies: the armed pro-democracy Peoples Defense Forces, which formed after the 2021 takeover, and ethnic minority guerrilla groups such as the Kachin that have been fighting for greater autonomy for decades.
A spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed alarm at the reports of killings and said he “condemns all forms of violence, including the military’s intensifying attacks throughout the country, which continue to fuel regional instability.”
Myanmar’s National Unity Government, the main nationwide opposition group that considers itself the country’s legitimate administrative body, said a kindergarten, school, church and many civilian houses were destroyed at the camp.
“This deliberate and targeted attack by the terrorist military council on civilians fleeing conflict constitutes a blatant crime against humanity and war crime,” it said.
Myanmar’s military government “has taken advantage of the moment of the international community’s attention on the recent developments of the Israel-Hamas conflict to commit yet another crime against humanity and war crime,” it added.
Naw Bu said it was unclear how the attack was carried out because people did not hear a jet fighter on a bombing run. The absence of such a sound, familiar in many parts of the countryside, could indicate that the camp was hit by air-to-ground missiles fired from a distance or by an armed drone.
He said the army used artillery to shell an area including the camp and nearby villages where about 400 people live.
In a statement over the phone to state television MRTV, military government spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun denied responsibility for the attack but said the military is capable of attacking the headquarters of all of Myanmar’s insurgent groups.
Zaw Min Tun said the area where the explosions occurred may have been used to store bombs for drones and unmanned aircraft for the Kachin fighting forces.
It was impossible to independently confirm details of the attack, though media sympathetic to the Kachin posted videos showing what they said was the aftermath, with images of dead bodies and flattened wooden structures.
Myanmar Witness, a non-governmental organization that collects and analyzes evidence related to human rights incidents, said it confirmed the camp was damaged but that it was still investigating the cause.
The military claims it targets only armed guerrilla forces and facilities, but there is considerable evidence that churches and schools have also been hit and many civilians killed and wounded. Artillery is frequently used.
The United States condemned the attack in a statement Tuesday. “The United States will continue to support the people of Burma and all those working peacefully to support their aspirations for peace and inclusive democracy,” the State Department wrote.
The Kachin are one of the stronger ethnic rebel groups and are capable of manufacturing some of their own armaments. They also have a loose alliance with the armed militias of the pro-democracy forces that were formed to fight army rule.
In October 2022, the military carried out airstrikes that hit a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, near a village in Hpakant township, a remote mountainous area 167 kilometers (103 miles) northwest of Laiza. The attack killed as many as 80 people, including Kachin officers and soldiers, along with singers and musicians, jade mining entrepreneurs and other civilians.
“Killing us en masse like this is a criminal act. The international community needs to know and take action. I would also like to ask the U.N. organizations to take action,” KIA spokesperson Naw Bu said Tuesday.
U.N. Deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq in New York highlighted the problems of displaced persons in Myanmar, noting that Kachin state “has seen an escalation in fighting over recent months, driving a surge in displacement, as well as worsening needs and protection concerns.”
He said the attack “underscores the dangers faced by the nearly two million people who are now displaced in Myanmar, including 1.7 million people who have fled their homes as a result of conflict and insecurity” since the military’s 2021 takeover.
AP writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.