BANGKOK (AP) — About two dozen members of local resistance forces in central Myanmar were killed in an army ambush as they sought to evacuate villagers ahead of a feared attack by the military, according to resistance members and media reports.
The total number of resistance fighters killed last Friday near Chay Yar Taw village in Sagaing region’s Myinmu township, if confirmed, would be one of the highest totals in a single armed confrontation in the ongoing strife in Myanmar since the army seized power in February 2021, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The army’s takeover triggered mass nonviolent protests nationwide and the military and police responded with deadly force. Armed resistance arose in turn, which has since turned into what U.N. experts have characterized as a civil war.
The army for the past two years has been conducting major offensives in the countryside, including burning villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. It has faced some of its toughest resistance in Sagaing, in Myanmar’s historic heartland.
Loosely organized resistance groups opposed to army rule, known as the People’s Defense Force, or PDF, have sprung up around the country and have formed alliances with well-established armed ethnic minority groups that have been fighting the central government for more than half a century, seeking greater autonomy in border regions.
San Shar, a spokesperson for the Black Eagle Defense Force resistance group from Myinmu township, told The Associated Press that the ambush occurred Friday night around 8 p.m. while it and other local resistance groups were evacuating hundreds of civilians southward from Kyawt Min village. They were bringing the residents to nearby villages including Chay Yar Taw because they expected that soldiers would be raiding Kyawt Min from the north that night.
The area is about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city.
Another member of the Black Eagle Defense Force, who asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals by the military, said Monday that a truck with villagers went ahead, but stopped en route, and resistance fighters who were trailing behind it in a minivan and on motorcycles sped ahead to catch up with it. He said they failed to realize that an estimated 30 soldiers in civilian clothes had staked out the spot, and the soldiers easily captured, and then killed the resistance fighters, including five members of his group.
He said the resistance fighters had only home-made weapons and could not resist the much better-armed soldiers.
He acknowledged that he had not witnessed the killings, but said he believed that they were shot dead on the spot on Friday night and early Saturday. Two PDF members managed to escape capture, he said. He said the evacuated villagers who went ahead were apparently unharmed, though a Kyawt Min villager was killed in unclear circumstances.
When PDF members went to the scene Saturday morning, they saw their comrades’ bodies with the gunshot wounds in the head piled up on the street where they had been arrested, he said, adding that all were male and they appeared to have signs of having been tortured.
It was impossible to independently confirm details of the attack because reporting is restricted by the military government.
The independent online news site Myanmar Now quoted a spokesperson of the Sagaing District PDF battalion as saying a vehicle carrying 18 resistance fighters who were trying to evacuate the villagers was attacked by the security forces and all of its occupants were killed Friday night. A motorcycle convoy of seven resistance force members was later fired on by the same army unit and there were no survivors, it reported.
Reports of the killings, along with what were said to be photos of the remains of the dead, appeared as well in other independent Myanmar media and on social media on Saturday.
The military government has made no official mention of the incident. However, reports by military supporters on the social media platform Telegram also said 25 members of local PDF groups were killed by the security forces in the ambush near Chay Yar Taw, and that motorcycles, two cars and weapons were seized.