The United Nations’ human rights office has condemned the Myanmar military for “again carrying out attacks” against civilians, expressing deep concerns over an escalation of violence in the country’s restive Rakhine state.
The western state was the epicentre of a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces in 2017 which forced about 730,000 Rohingya to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh.
The UN has accused the army of “genocidal intent” in its campaign against the long persecuted, Muslim-majority minority, which followed attacks by a Rohingya armed group on police posts in late August 2017.
More recently, the military has been battling another armed group, the Arakan Army, which draws recruits mostly from the ethnic Rakhine population.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced concern about attacks on civilians by both sides.
Ravina Shamdasani said that there were “credible reports of the killing of civilians, burning of houses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, indiscriminate fire in civilian areas, and damage to cultural property”.
She cited sources on the ground as saying at least seven people were killed on Wednesday when two military helicopters flew over a village in south Buthidaung township and fired on civilians tending cows and paddy fields.
Shamdasani said the attack was carried out in an area where thousands of Rohingya were taking shelter having fled earlier fighting. Overall, more than 20,000 people have been displaced by the upsurge in fighting across five townships in Rakhine state.
“We are deeply disturbed by the intensification of the conflict in Rakhine State in recent weeks, and condemn what appear to be indiscriminate attacks and attacks directed at civilians by the Myanmar military and armed fighters,” she said,
“As the international community is taking steps towards accountability for the crimes committed against civilians in previous years, the Myanmar military is again carrying out attacks against its own civilians – attacks which may constitute war crimes.”
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Separately on Friday, the Myanmar army-run Myawady newspapersaid six Rohingya killed and nine wounded in Wednesday’s aerial attack were “together with terrorists while the army was cracking down on the Arakan Army’s terrorist activities” in Buthidaung township.
But Arakan Army spokesman Khin Thu Kha denied the dead and wounded men were members of the armed group, saying the military had attacked indiscriminately.
“They bombed everywhere, believing there were Arakan Army members in the jungle,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
Three villagers and a regional lawmaker also told Reuters on Thursday that the men were collecting bamboo near the Sai Din waterfall when an army helicopter attacked,
“All of them were bamboo workers,” said Soe Tun Oo, a fellow labourer.
In Geneva, the UN human rights office said the effect of the violence on civilians in northern Rakhine “has been exacerbated by the government’s near-suspension of humanitarian access” since January.
It also urged the army and the Arakan Army to “immediately cease hostilities” and to restore access for humanitarian aid.
Al Jazeera and news agencies