Opponents of the military and local residents had gathered in Kanbalu’s Pa Zi Gyi village Tuesday morning to mark the opening of a new office of an administrative unit of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a self-proclaimed rebel army formed in the wake of the coup, according to eyewitnesses. Midway through a celebration ceremony, a little before 8 a.m., a fighter jet was seen overhead, followed by an Mi-35 helicopter, said a leader of the Kanbalu PDF’s 4th Battalion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. The aircraft dropped bombs and opened fire on the crowd, causing chaos, witnesses said.
Casualties are still being counted, the PDF leader said, but the unit’s early estimates are that up to 70 people were killed. Dozens more including children, were rushed to hospitals. A Western diplomat in Yangon said at least 83 people were killed or injured.
Videos and photos from Kanbalu provided to The Washington Post show mangled bodies and body parts in the rubble, many covered in dust and ash. “We can’t even collect the dead,” said the PDF leader. “It’s all still burning.”
A spokesman for the military junta did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The airstrike could constitute a war crime, said the National Unity Government, a parallel administration that was formed in the wake of the coup. “The heinous act by the terrorist military is yet another example of their indiscriminate use of extreme force,” the NUG Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The military has not claimed responsibility for the attack. But Aung Myo Min, the NUG minister for human rights, said it is well-known that no other groups in the country posses aerial forces. “This is part of their terror campaign to make people fear their retaliation,” he said.
Myanmar’s military has stepped up its aerial offensive against resistance fighters in recent months, using its arsenal of Russian-supplied aircraft to inflict heavy casualties. In September, two military helicopters attacked a school, killing 11 children, according to the United Nations. In October, a jet opened fire on an outdoor concert, leaving as many as 80 people dead.
Many of these attacks have targeted Sagaing, a resistance stronghold that has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the coup. More than 600,000 people in Sagaing have been displaced by the conflict, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. But the junta has increasingly blocked aid groups’ access to the region, including in the wake of deadly attacks.
Amnesty International on Tuesday reiterated its call for governments to ban the supply of aviation fuel to the Myanmar military. “Unlawful air attacks killing and injuring civilians and destroying homes are a trademark of the Myanmar military,” said Montse Ferrer, an Amnesty researcher. “Myanmar’s civilians bear the brunt of these sickening tactics.”
Tan reported from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This is a breaking story and will be updated.