The military responded to attacks by anti-junta forces with air and artillery strikes.
After four days of intense battles with the military in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, armed resistance groups have occupied the city of Kawlin, but residents and aid workers say the fighting has displaced 50,000 people, stoking fears of a humanitarian crisis.
On Nov. 3, anti-junta People’s Defense Force paramilitaries under the shadow National Unity Government and ethnic Kachin Independence Army soldiers launched attacks on a junta police station, general administration office and schools where troops were stationed in downtown Kawlin.
The attacks sparked clashes that lasted until Nov. 6, during which the military responded with airstrikes on the district-level city, an aid worker told RFA Burmese on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
By the time the dust had settled on Monday, the People’s Defense Force, or PDF, and Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, had assumed joint control of Kawlin, but at least 10 civilians were dead and 50,000 others had fled their homes to shelter on the outskirts of the city, the aid worker said.
“About four or five … people were also injured by small arms and shelling,” he said, adding that the bodies of the 10 dead were discovered as rescue workers cleared debris from city streets on Nov. 6.
Anti-junta forces are providing medical treatment to the injured, although the exact number of casualties is still being determined, the aid worker said.
‘Afraid of airstrikes’
A woman who fled the city on Nov. 4 as airstrikes and artillery strikes intensified told RFA that the displaced “don’t feel safe returning home” amid a lack of security.
“Our family left by motorbike for rural areas to be safe amid the conflict,” she said, adding that they couldn’t bring any of their belongings “except the clothes on our backs.”
“We dare not return home as we are still afraid of airstrikes,” she said. “I hope the situation will return to normal as soon as possible. I have never experienced such chaos in my lifetime.”
The woman said that the nearly 50,000 people who fled Kawlin are staying in areas “nearby the city” and that the armed resistance has been providing the displaced with some food and shelter.
However, the military has blocked routes to Kawlin, leaving those who fled without access to adequate amounts of food, medicine and fuel, residents said.
Aftermath of clashes
In the meantime, the armed resistance is working to solidify its control on the city and to push forward into nearby towns, a member of the Kawlin PDF told RFA.
“We are trying to maintain the city, which is an extremely difficult task,” said the PDF member, who also declined to be named. “We had to carry out many difficult missions to occupy the city. We retreated many times, but we took control of it in the end.”
The Kawlin PDF member said that he hopes his group’s success inspires other anti-junta forces to do the same in other parts of Sagaing, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting in all of Myanmar since the military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat.
Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Major General Zaw Min Tun and Sai Naing Naing Kyaw, the junta’s ethnic affairs minister and spokesperson for Sagaing region, for comment on the military’s loss of Kawlin went unanswered Tuesday.
Than Soe Naing, a political commentator, called the seizure of Kawlin by the armed resistance forces “the first stage” of capturing other cities in Sagaing.
“The resistance forces in Sagaing region need arms and ammunition, rather than manpower,” he said. “If [they can] control more areas with sufficient arms and establish better collaborative efforts, we could see more success for the armed resistance in coming months.”
More than 1.6 million civilians have fled their homes due to fighting since the February 2021 coup, according to figures released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) at the end of last month. The agency said that the number of displaced in Sagaing has reached at least 813,500.