Myanmar’s military resumed its shelling of the Rakhine coastal town of Pauktaw over the weekend amid an intensification of ongoing clashes with the Arakan Army (AA) near the state capital Sittwe.
Residents reported that heavy artillery fire caused blazes in several wards of the town after fighting broke out at around 8am on Saturday.
“We saw fires at the market and the Shwe Pyi Tan port, and they’re still burning. I don’t imagine there’s much left of them by now,” said a local man who spoke to Myanmar Now at around 3pm on Saturday.
“We don’t know if it was the junta navy or some other force that fired the shells, but the fires started as soon as they fell,” he added, noting that there was no one left in the town to put out the flames.
Other residents of the area claimed they saw navy vessels on the Sittwe River as well as junta troops stationed near Sittwe open fire on Pauktaw at around noon.
This came a day after reports that a junta ship anchored near the confluence of the Kaladan and Ponnagyun rivers had opened fire on the town of Ponnagyun, about 12 miles north of Pauktaw, destroying the local market.
“Everything is gone in the fire. Nothing is left. The entire Ponnagyun market has been destroyed,” a woman who livestreamed the fire can be heard saying in a video circulating on social media.
Contrary to the claims of witnesses, however, the junta’s spokesperson, Zaw Min Tun, denied over the weekend that the military was responsible for the fires.
“The AA is trying to confuse the public,” he said, suggesting that the ethnic Rakhine armed group was deliberately carrying out what he called “systematic arson attacks” to discredit the military.
The regime has made similar claims in other parts of the country where its troops have been accused of torching houses and other buildings, in some cases incinerating entire villages.
While it was unclear why Ponnagyun was targeted, Pauktaw has been the scene of intense fighting since it was captured by the AA on November 15. Although junta airstrikes and heavy shelling forced the group to withdraw from the town two days later, it has since returned.
In a statement, the AA said that its forces re-entered Pauktaw on November 21, rescuing around 120 civilians who were being held there as human shields. The next day, it returned and rescued another 104, the statement claimed.
In addition to taking hostages, regime troops who seized control of Pauktaw on November 17 were also accused of killing five civilians, including a Buddhist monk.
The AA claimed that it killed nearly 50 regime soldiers during last week’s fighting in Pauktaw and injured at least 18 more. Weapons, ammunition, and drones were also seized, it added.
Fighting in Rakhine State began on November 13, when the AA carried out a series of attacks on junta outposts as part of a major anti-regime offensive launched in northern Shan State late last month.
Since then, it says it has taken control of more than 40 outposts in Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Maungdaw townships, including some that were abandoned without a fight by Border Guard Forces under the military’s command.
On Friday, the AA also engaged in clashes in Myebon Township, south of Sittwe, killing at least 10 regime soldiers, it said in a statement, adding that the current focus of its attacks is on two tactical bases in southern Chin State’s Paletwa Township.
The two bases are providing security for the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project, backed by India, according to junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun.