Myanmar’s military has admitted carrying out an air attack on a community hall in the central Sagaing region that reportedly killed at least 50 people, including women and schoolchildren performing dances.
Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military, confirmed the raid late on Tuesday, saying security forces attacked an opening ceremony for an office of an alleged militia group opposed to their rule in Pa Zi Gyi village.
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“During that opening ceremony, we conducted the attack. PDF members were killed,” Zaw Min Tun told the military broadcaster Myawaddy, referring to the civilian militias known as People’s Defence Forces.
“They are the ones opposing the government of the country, the people of the country,” he said.
Witnesses told local media the attack took place early on Tuesday morning, with fighter jets dropping bombs on the community hall. Helicopter gunships followed shortly after, shooting at survivors at the scene and hampering rescue efforts.
“Many people including children were killed and the casualties may exceed more than 50 people,” U Nay Zin Latt, a former legislator for the region, told the Irrawaddy news website.
Ko Aung, a resident of Pa Zi Gyi who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack, said he was “petrified” by the sight of bodies spread on the ground. “Motorbikes were burning and the house was also completely destroyed by the bombardment. People were crying as they were looking for their relatives,” he said.
Ko Aung told the Irrawaddy news site that he lost relatives in the attack and that he had to take cover under a concrete bridge when the Mi-35 helicopters appeared in the skies and started shooting at the people on the ground.
Some media reports put the toll at more than 100 but Al Jazeera was unable to verify the figure. If confirmed, the attack on Pa Zi Gyi would be the deadliest in the country since the military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in a coup in February 2021.
Zaw Min Tun, the military spokesman, admitted that “some people who were forced to support [the PDFs] died as well”. He said photographs showed some of those killed were in uniform and some in civilian clothes, accusing the PDF of falsely claiming civilian deaths when their forces were killed.
“According to our ground information we hit the place of their weapons’ storage and that exploded and people died due to that,” he added.
Call for accountability
Tuesday’s attack drew global condemnation.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the raid, calling for “those responsible to be held accountable”.
He also appealed for those wounded to be allowed urgent medical treatment and access to assistance.
The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, also said he was “horrified” by the attack, condemning the military’s “blatant disregard for rules of international law” that call for the protection of civilians.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the military and its affiliated militias are responsible for an extremely broad range of human rights violations and abuses since 1 February 2021, some of which may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes,” Turk added.
The United States also expressed “deep concern”.
It noted that the assault followed reports of an air raid in northern Chin state in which at least nine people were killed, and said, “these violent attacks further underscore the regime’s disregard for human life and its responsibility for the dire political and humanitarian crisis in Burma following the February 2021 coup”. Burma is the country’s former name.
Myanmar has been plunged into chaos since the military’s power grab and its crackdown on peaceful protesters demonstrating against its rule. The UN and rights groups say soldiers in Myanmar have engaged in thousands of indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests and torture.
They also accuse the armed forces of setting fire to thousands of homes in villages opposed to military rule – offences they say could amount to war crimes.
The violence prompted the National Unity Government (NUG), an administration set up by elected legislators removed in the coup, to call for a “people’s uprising” against the military. PDF militias have since sprung up across Myanmar, effectively denying the military control over vast swathes of the country and preventing it from consolidating its coup.
At least 1.2 million people have been displaced from their homes in the fighting, according to the UN.
Several Western nations, including the US, the United Kingdom and countries in the European Union have imposed sanctions against Myanmar’s military, including on the aviation fuel sector in a bid to limit air attacks.
In addition to the raid on Pa Zi Gyi, the military also launched an attack on a music concert in northern Kachin state last October, killing as many as 80 people.
Amnesty International on Tuesday again called for the suspension of jet fuel supplies to Myanmar.
“Unlawful air attacks killing and injuring civilians and destroying homes are a trademark of the Myanmar military, which goes to despicable lengths to crush resistance and instil fear in the population. Myanmar’s civilians bear the brunt of these sickening tactics,” Montse Ferrer, Amnesty’s business and human rights researcher, said in a statement.
“The relentless air attacks across Myanmar highlight the urgent need to suspend the import of aviation fuel. Amnesty reiterates its calls on all states and businesses to stop shipments that may end up in the hands of the Myanmar Air Force.
“This supply chain fuels violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and it must be disrupted in order to save lives.”