The military regime has confirmed that it carried out an air strike on a village in which dozens of people were reported killed, drawing condemnation from the United Nations and Western powers.
UN rights chief Mr Volker Turk said he was “horrified” by the deadly air strike, whose victims he said included schoolchildren performing dances, with the global body calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.
The death toll from the early Tuesday morning strike in Sagaing Region’s Kantbalu Township in central Myanmar remains unclear.
At least 50 fatalities and dozens of injuries were reported by BBC Burmese, The Irrawaddy and Radio Free Asia, as well as a witness contacted by AFP.
Military aircraft strafed Pazi Gyi village, where scores of locals had gathered to mark the opening of a parallel administration office connected to junta opponents, a witness told AFP.
One fighter jet and a helicopter were involved in the attack, a security source told AFP.
The junta confirmed Wednesday it had “launched limited air strikes” after receiving a tip-off from locals about the event.
It did not say how many were killed but insisted the military had tried to minimise harm to civilians.
“We heard that more people were killed because of big explosions from weapons and ammunitions … displayed at the opening event,” the junta statement said.
Junta spokesman Major-General Zaw Min Tun late on Tuesday said some of the dead were anti-coup fighters in uniform, though “there could be some people with civilian clothes”.
The spokesman went on to blame mines planted by resistance army the People’s Defence Force for some of the deaths.
Myanmar new year
The attack came as Myanmar was preparing to mark its traditional new year festival, Thingyan, which begins Thursday and traditionally involves public water fights, but celebrations are expected to be muted.
“As the people of Myanmar celebrate their New Year, the EU is deeply shocked by reports of the latest atrocity committed by the military regime in Sagaing, taking the lives of dozens of innocent civilians,” EU foreign affairs spokesperson Ms Nabila Massrali said.
The UN while not confirming a toll, said several civilians were killed, with Turk accusing Myanmar’s military of once again disregarding “clear legal obligations… to protect civilians in the conduct of hostilities”.
The military’s crackdown on dissent following the February 2021 coup that toppled Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government has left more than 3,200 people dead, according to a local monitoring group.
Sagaing has put up some of the fiercest resistance to the military’s rule, with intense fighting raging there for months.
Graphic video clips circulating on social media – footage AFP has been unable to verify or geo-locate because of the absence of significant landmarks – show bodies scattered among ruined homes.
“We are going to rescue you if we hear you screaming,” one person could be heard saying in a video. “Please scream!”
A rescuer connected to a People’s Defence Force group told AFP that children were among the dead.
After recovering bodies and transporting survivors to safety, he estimated the death toll could be as high as 100.
UN chief Mr Antonio Guterres condemned the attack and reiterated “his call for the military to end the campaign of violence against the Myanmar population throughout the country”, according to a statement from his spokesperson.
Washington also denounced the “reprehensible” attack.
“We strongly condemn the regime’s air strikes and urge the regime to cease the violence,” US State Department Counselor Mr Derek Chollet tweeted.
Human Rights Watch Asia division deputy director Mr Phil Robertson said the strike was likely to have a chilling effect across Myanmar society.
“I think this will cause greater fear amongst the people,” he told AFP.
“I think in the future, communities will be reluctant to hold a … mass gathering of any sort, recognising that they could be bombed, they could be attacked.”
Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a shadow body dominated by former lawmakers from ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, called the strike a “heinous act”.
“We… share the great pain felt by the families affected by this tragedy,” it said in a statement.
The military last month announced a six-month extension of a state of emergency and postponed elections it had promised to hold by August because it did not control enough of the country for a vote.