Myanmar’s military has launched air attacks on a central town known to be a bastion of opposition to the coup carried out two years ago.
Witnesses and local media said dozens of people were killed and wounded in the attack on Tuesday – one of the worst since the military seized control of the country.
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Citing residents in the Sagaing area – about 110km (45 miles) west of the main city Yangon – news reports said at least 50 people, including children, died in the barrage on the town of Pazigyi.
The air raids occurred as residents gathered for the inauguration of an administrative office, Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng reported from Thailand’s capital Bangkok.
“At 7:35am the crowd was attacked by jets and those were followed by Mi-35 helicopters,” said Cheng, citing one rescuer at the scene.
“He confirmed 40 dead but he suspects the death toll will rise considerably – the carnage there was terrible. All the reports we’re seeing is that these were civilians, and far from being a legitimate military target.”
No immediate response from Myanmar’s military rulers was available.
Three first responders were killed in the second attack while rescue work was being carried out, Cheng reported.
Sagaing region – near the second-largest city Mandalay – has put up some of the fiercest resistance to the military’s rule with intense fighting raging there for months.
Graphic video circulating on social media purportedly of the attack show bodies scattered among the ruins of homes. “We are going to rescue you if we hear you screaming,” one person could be heard saying in one video. “Please scream!”
Myanmar’s armed forces have been accused of indiscriminate killings of civilians as it engages in major offensives to suppress armed resistance to its takeover.
Last month, Myanmar’s coup leader Min Aung Hlaing pledged to deal decisively with “terrorists” fighting against his rule.
A member of the local People’s Defence Force (PDF), an anti-junta militia, told Reuters news agency fighter jets fired on a ceremony held to open their local office.
“So far the exact number of casualties is still unknown. We cannot retrieve all the bodies yet,” said the PDF member, who declined to be identified.
News agencies including BBC Burmese, Radio Free Asia and the Irrawaddy news portal later estimated that the death toll fell between 50 and 100 people.
Myanmar’s pro-democracy government-in-exile, the National Unity Government, condemned the attack, calling it “yet another example of [the military’s] indiscriminate use of extreme force against civilians”.
Tuesday’s incident could be one of the deadliest among a string of air strikes since a jet attacked a concert in October killing at least 50 civilians, local singers, and members of an armed ethnic minority group in Kachin state.
1 million displaced
On February 1, 2021, the military toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting peaceful protests that security forces suppressed with violence that escalated since then and has been characterised by United Nations experts and others as a civil war.
More than one million people have been displaced as the military steps up artillery attacks and air raids.
Western countries have rolled out sanctions against the ruling generals in a bid to choke off revenue and access to military equipment from key allies and suppliers such as Russia.
A military spokesperson told Al Jazeera recently that previously reported attacks blamed on its forces have been “misreported”.
A spokesperson for the UN’s special envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, said agencies were trying to verify the reports of Tuesday’s attack. Later, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said those responsible should be held accountable. The spokesperson also called upon the military “to end the campaign of violence against the Myanmar population”.