Myanmar air strike death toll rises to at least 130: Report

Villagers used old car tyres on Thursday to cremate the last of an estimated 130 victims of an airstrike in Myanmar’s central Sagaing region, with South East Asian countries saying they “strongly condemned” the attack, AFP reports.

The country has seen widespread violence, with its economy almost paralysed, since the military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government in a February 2021 coup.

No official death toll from the Tuesday morning strike on Pazi Gyi village has been released, although authorities confirmed they had carried out an aerial military operation in the area.

At least 130 fatalities have been reported by media outlets BBC Burmese, The Irrawaddy and Radio Free Asia, while the United Nations has cited a death toll of at least 100.

A villager involved in rescue and recovery efforts — who asked not to be named to protect his safety — told AFP his team had counted and identified 130 bodies as of Thursday afternoon.

Body parts were strewn across the site and identifying victims had been a difficult process, he said.

“We used car tyres to cremate the dead bodies,” he said, adding that 28 people remain missing.

US-based media outlet CNN reported more than 160 fatalities, citing a figure from an exiled former lawmaker.

The Sagaing region — a rebel stronghold 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.

Since the coup, the military’s crackdown on dissent and armed groups opposed to its rule has killed more than 3,200 people, according to a local monitoring group.

– Mounting condemnation –

Earlier Thursday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — which has spearheaded so far fruitless diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar — strongly condemned the air strikes.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, is the 2023 chair of the regional bloc and is hoping to resurrect a five-point plan — agreed to two years ago — which the junta has largely ignored.

“All forms of violence must end immediately, particularly the use of force against civilians,” the bloc said in an unusually bold statement issued by Indonesia.

A statement from the ASEAN chair does not necessarily indicate the agreement of all countries and although Myanmar remains a member, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has been barred from summits in recent years.

Aung Myo Myint — Myanmar’s representative to the bloc — met the top ASEAN official in Jakarta on Thursday to discuss the crisis and peace plan.

The air strike incident is likely to be discussed at an upcoming ASEAN leaders’ summit in Jakarta in May.

The junta confirmed on Wednesday it had launched “limited” air strikes after it had received a local tip-off about an event marking the opening of an office for one of the local anti-coup groups.

It did not say how many were killed but insisted the military had tried to minimise harm to civilians.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun blamed mines planted by the People’s Defence Force — coup opponents — for some of the deaths.

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.

This week’s strike drew international outrage with United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk saying he was “horrified” and that the victims included schoolchildren performing dances.

The United Kingdom — Myanmar’s former colonial power — has called for the United Nations Security Council to meet to discuss the incident.

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

But this is unlikely because Russia is a firm ally of Myanmar and a large oil exporter, experts say.

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