Seven killed in Myanmar monastery shelling: witnesses

Yangon (AFP) –


Seven people were killed when artillery rounds slammed into a monastery where they were sheltering from firefights between military and insurgent forces in Myanmar's Rakhine state, witnesses said Tuesday.

The military has deployed thousands of troops to the western state, where it is locked in bloody battles with Arakan Army (AA) rebels fighting for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

Clashes are heating up in the same area where the military drove out 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in a 2017 campaign UN investigators have said amounted to genocide.

On Monday morning, fighting engulfed the village of Sapa Htar in northern Rakhine state's Minbya township, village leader Myo Kyaw Aung told AFP by phone Tuesday.

He described how villagers took refuge in the local monastery after artillery fire hit several homes.

"Then ... shelling hit the monastery," he said, adding that in addition to the seven deaths, an equal number were injured.

Many of the community of some 800 tried to flee but were trapped by artillery fire.

"We thought we were going to die," Myo Kyaw Aung said, adding they did not know who had fired the shells.

Access to northern Rakhine state is extremely restricted making independent verification difficult.

Army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun did not confirm the deaths but cast blame for civilian casualties on Arakan Army tactics.

"The area will become less stable if they continue to mount attacks from villages."

But the rebel group held the military responsible.

"They knew villagers were staying at the monastery," AA spokesman Khine Thu Kha told AFP.

More than 30,000 people have fled their homes in recent months because of the unrest.

A driver was injured Tuesday in a mine blast as he pulled off a main road -- the second explosion in the area in five days.

Six of the seven wounded in Monday's attack managed to reach hospital in the state capital, including two relatives of 53-year-old Hla Saw Shwe.

But his younger sister and niece were killed in the monastery.

"I just want the war to end," he said sobbing.

Amnesty last week accused the military of committing war crimes, extrajudicial killings and torture in new operations, documenting seven unlawful attacks in which 14 civilians were killed.

The army confirmed it shot dead six detainees in late April.

But it denied Amnesty's accusations, saying actions against "terrorists" were within the law.

The AA also dismissed allegations of abuses by Amnesty.