Myanmar confirms deadly air strike as international outcry mounts

File photo: Mladen ANTONOV / AFP

Myanmar’s ruling junta 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 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 Tuesday morning strike on the remote Kanbalu township in the central Sagaing region remains unclear, with at least 50 fatalities and dozens of injuries reported by BBC Burmese, The Irrawaddy and Radio Free Asia, as well as by a witness contacted by AFP.

Myanmar’s military has cracked down on dissent following a February 2021 coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, with the ensuing unrest leaving more than 3,200 people dead, according to a local monitoring group.

Tuesday’s strike saw military aircraft strafe Pazi Gyi village, where scores of locals had gathered to mark the opening of a local defense force 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 minimize harm to civilians.

“We heard that more people were killed because of big explosions from weapons and ammunitions… displayed at the opening event,” a junta statement said.

Junta spokesman 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 the People’s Defence Force — coup opponents — for some of the deaths.

Sagaing region — near the country’s second-largest city of Mandalay — has put up some of the fiercest resistance to the military’s rule, with intense fighting raging there for months.

Buddhist New Year

The attack came as Myanmar was preparing to mark the Buddhist new year — 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 Nabila Massrali said.

While not confirming a toll, the UN 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”.

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 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 Derek Chollet tweeted.

Human Rights Watch Asia division deputy director 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, recognizing that they could be bombed, they could be attacked.”

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Myanmar conflict tracker, the military has carried out 689 air and drone strike attacks since the coup.

Rights groups have called for the international community to further restrict Myanmar’s access to aviation fuel in the wake of the attack.

But Bangkok-based security analyst Anthony Davis told AFP that demand was “divorced from reality”.

“Russia is a firm ally of the junta and one of the world’s largest oil exporters. Do we seriously believe Moscow will sit and watch the Myanmar Air Force being slowly grounded for a lack of aviation fuel?” he said.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a shadow body dominated by former lawmakers from ousted civilian leader 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.

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