‘Children’s bodies crushed into pieces’ in Myanmar military airstrike on Kanbalu Township

At least 97 people, including 34 children—one of whom was a six-month-old infant—were killed in a military airstrike on Pa Zi Gyi village in Sagaing Region’s Kanbalu Township on Tuesday morning, according to local estimates which continue to rise as more victims are discovered. 

The target of the attack was the opening ceremony for the new office of the Kanbalu’s People’s Administration Team, operating under the publicly mandated National Unity Government, which the junta has designated a terrorist organisation.

Some 200 people representing all of Pa Zi Gyi’s households had gathered, including many who were there to receive food offered as part of the ceremony, which also coincided with the start of Thingyan, the traditional Myanmar New Year.

A fighter jet initially dropped two bombs on the gathering just before 8am, followed by 10 minutes of gunfire from an Mi-35 helicopter. 

Every family in Pa Zi Gyi lost between two and four people in the bombardment, a spokesperson from Battalion 4 of the Kanbalu District People’s Defence Force (PDF) said. 

Many of the victims were dismembered or burnt beyond identification, the PDF officer explained, noting that at the time of reporting it was not known how many of the casualties belonged to members of armed resistance groups. 

“The bodies weren’t even in one piece anymore. We had to pick up each limb from different places and bring them together to count each person,” he told Myanmar Now, explaining that they had to “match the limb sizes to re-assemble people.”

“We don’t have any medical background, so it was really hard to guess,” the officer said. 

He added that villagers from the surrounding communities and members of the PDF were still trying to retrieve all of the victims’ bodies from the area on Wednesday afternoon, which was challenging while junta aircraft continued to hover over the northwestern edge of Pa Zi Gyi. 

“Many of the children’s bodies were crushed into pieces, so we just had to count the arms and legs that were still intact as a whole child,” the officer said. “We found two children’s bodies in the bushes this morning—they were shot dead while hiding there.”

He described those two children as having been riddled with bullet wounds, presumably fired by soldiers from the helicopter. They were found 300m from the sites of the bombings, which completely demolished the new office building, burning the people inside to death, and struck a field where children were being offered a special free lunch of rice and beef to commemorate the event. 

Fifty wounded survivors of the attack were found and transferred to a medical centre, where many remain in critical condition. At least half were rescued by the Kanbalu PDF’s Battalion 4, but five of these individuals—four women and one man—had died of their injuries as of Tuesday evening.

“They had broken bones in their arms, legs and ribs—some of them were completely crushed,” the officer recalled. “They were in need of emergency blood transfusions. All 25 of them were injured in the same way.”

While 20 were still in need of blood donations, the condition of the other 25 people wounded and rescued by other groups was not confirmed at the time of reporting. 

Primarily a farming village, Pa Zi Gyi had not previously seen significant military activity, with only a local defence team providing security for residents, the PDF officer said. Since the February 2021 coup, the closest battle had taken place some five miles north of Pa Zi Gyi last May, in the village of Htan Taw. 

International condemnation followed Tuesday’s attacks, with UN Secretary General António Guterres “call[ing] for those responsible to be held accountable.”

Deputy spokesperson of the US State Department Vedant Patel described the assault on Pa Zi Gyi as “further underscor[ing] the regime’s disregard for human life and its responsibility for the dire political and humanitarian crisis” in Myanmar since the coup.

The US called on the junta “to cease the horrific violence, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and to respect the genuine and inclusive democratic aspirations of the people of Burma,” referring to Myanmar by an earlier name. 

Amnesty International’s business and human rights researcher Montse Ferrer said the airstrikes were “horrifying” and “unlawful.”

“The relentless air attacks across Myanmar highlight the urgent need to suspend the import of aviation fuel,” he stated. “Amnesty reiterates its calls on all states and businesses to stop shipments that may end up in the hands of the Myanmar Air Force. This supply chain fuels violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and it must be disrupted in order to save lives.”

Meanwhile, Myanmar army spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun justified the bombardment in a comment to military broadcaster Myawaddy on Tuesday night on the grounds that PDF members were present at the gathering. He also claimed that the casualties were not solely caused by the military’s attack.

“According to our ground information the explosion occurred as our attack directly hit the location where those terrorist groups stored gunpowder and explosives, resulting in more casualties,” he said.

In another statement on Tuesday, the military suggested the locals were forced to participate in the activities of resistance groups and that the military is unfairly blamed when there are civilian casualties.

“Terrorist PDFs often use locals as human shields and hostages when there are armed clashes with our security forces,” the statement said.

A local resistance fighter who helped retrieve the body parts scattered around Pa Zi Gyi rejected the military’s explanation that PDF weapons had been stored on-site.

“When local civilians here in this area were invited for the office’s opening ceremony, who in their right mind would put explosives in the proximity?” he asked. 

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