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  • Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019.

    Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 6 April 2019

“The Myanmar military is again carrying out attacks against its own civilians; attacks which may constitute war crimes,” a U.N. spokesperson said.

The United Nations warns of possible war crimes by Myanmar’s military after a helicopter attack in a village killed Rohingya Muslims in the fields Wednesday.

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“The Myanmar military is again carrying out attacks against its own civilians; attacks which may constitute war crimes,” U.N. spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told journalists.

The U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner reported that Wednesday evening two military helicopters flew over Hpon Nyo Leik village firing at Rohingya Muslims who were tending livestock and crops in the fields in the south Buthidaung township in the western state of Rakhine.

Numbers vary between accounts. The U.N. stated that at least seven civilians were killed, and 18 others were injured, according to sources in Myanmar.

“These particular killings we have been able to verify with some certainty,” Shamdasani said, adding that OHCHR had received a large number of videos and photographs of the attack. “This is why we’re putting it out there: that there was a helicopter attack, that bombs were dropped, and that these seven civilians were killed.”

Villagers and a lawmaker in Rakhine state said Thursday that the military helicopter attacked a group of Rohingya Muslims gathering bamboo and killed five while wounding 13. However, the next day Myanmar's military said that six Rohingya Muslims were killed and nine others wounded -- insisting they were affiliated with an armed rebel group.

The army-run Myawady newspaper said the villagers were "together with terrorists while the army was cracking down on the Arakan Army's terrorist activities" Wednesday in the township of Buthidaung.

Myanmar's western Rakhine state came to global attention in 2017, when the army drove about 730,000 ethnic Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh following attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police posts.

The United Nations has accused the army of cracking down on the Muslim minority with "genocidal intent." More recently, the military has been fighting another armed group, the Arakan Army, which recruits mostly from the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population.

The latest incident occurred in a valley in Buthidaung township, near a village that was home to Rohingya Muslim families.

"A military airstrike killed five people, including one of our villagers, at around 4 pm yesterday," Zaw Kir Ahmed, a community leader from Kin Taung village told Reuters by telephone.

"People in the village don’t dare to go out and are frightened," he added.

Many villages around Buthidaung were razed during the 2017 campaign against Rohingya, though the village that was home to the casualties from Wednesday's attack was spared at that time.

Myanmar’s leaders have vowed to crush all the rebels fighting for autonomy in Rakhine State, an area long scarred by complex ethnic divisions, and authorities have blocked most aid agencies' access to the area, raising fears of more civilian suffering.

The Rohingya have been persecuted for years. Yasmin was expelled from Leda High School for being a Rohingya. | Source: Reuters

Stephan Sakalian, head of delegation in Myanmar at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said teams from the organization had visited Buthidaung Hospital where 13 people were being treated for wounds, some of them in "urgent need of surgery".

"ICRC and Myanmar Red Cross teams are following the situation very closely and offered our services in case of need, including medical supplies or transfer to the Sittwe hospital, as we did two weeks ago with 5 wounded civilians," he said.

Rashid Ahmed, a worker who spoke by telephone to Reuters, said his elder brother, uncle and nephew had been shot while they were working at Sai Din valley.

"A helicopter attacked them while they were working there, cutting and collecting bamboo," he said. Two other villagers said a helicopter had attacked the group.

Some of the wounded were brought to Buthidaung town, but several died before they reached the hospital, said Maung Kyaw Zan, a lawmaker for the township, adding that five bodies had been recovered.

Rohingyas have been driven out of Myanmar by brutal state violence and now reside in Cox's Bazar refugee camp. | Source: Reuters

"When I talked to the wounded people they said the shooting came from the air, there were no clashes on the ground," the lawmaker said.

For years, civilians in Myanmar have been forced to flee both internally, and across the border into Bangladesh, amid escalating violence in Myanmar’s Chin and Rakhine states, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) said in a statement.

More than 720,000 mostly-Muslim Rohingyas have fled an army crackdown in Rakhine State since Aug. 2017 and have sought shelter in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The United Nations has since been making plans to help Bangladesh relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island off its coast, documents seen by Reuters show, a move opposed by many refugees and that some human rights experts fear could spark a new crisis.

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