Six children were severely wounded in the attack that took place while school was in session.
At least 18 children were injured and receiving medical care after junta troops fired artillery shells on a village in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region during the middle of the school day, according to residents.
The incident was the latest example of casualties caused by the junta targeting a civilian area in Myanmar, where authorities have killed at least 4,131 people since the military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat and embarked on a nationwide offensive to root out its opposition.
On Wednesday, the military’s Light Infantry Battalion 102, based in the town of Wuntho, fired three howitzer shells at Gyoe Taung village around 13 kilometers (8 miles) to the northeast, one of which exploded around 6 meters (20 feet) away from the village school while classes were in session.
Residents told RFA on Friday that eight boys and 10 girls between the ages of eight and 12 were injured in the shelling, six seriously.
“It’s a relief that the shell exploded outside the school,” said one resident of Gyoe Taung who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA Burmese on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. “If it directly hit, the children would likely have died.”
The resident said that several of the children suffered severe bruising to their chests, but that most “are doing fine” after receiving medical treatment from the People’s Administrative Organization, which opened the school serving more than 100 children between the ages of four and 12 in the courtyard of the village monastery.
The school had to be temporarily closed due to damage from the shelling, he said.
According to military experts, the 155-millimeter howitzer used in the attack is typically deployed to back ground troops on the front line of a conflict and is capable of lobbing shells from up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.
More than 1,000 residents of villages on the eastern side of Wuntho township are currently sheltering in Gyoe Taung to avoid other fighting in the area, sources said.
Another resident of Gyoe Taung told RFA that people are “terrified” and described the children hit by the shelling as “panic-stricken” due to the random use of heavy artillery by junta troops in the township.
“The shelling hit right near the school where the children were studying and the monastery, which is unacceptable,” the resident said. “The children were scared and started to cry. They panicked as their bleeding injuries were treated.”
The resident said that villagers are “afraid for their lives, as [the soldiers] fire indiscriminately in the township.
“Even if they don’t carry out a raid, the people here are scared,” he said.
The shelling took place a day after members of the anti-junta People’s Defense Force, or PDF, paramilitary group approached and opened fire on a military checkpoint in Wuntho, killing some members of the pro-junta Pyu-saw-htee militia and capturing weapons, residents told RFA, calling the attack “unprovoked.”
A member of the Wuntho PDF said that while the situation in the township is currently stable, the risk of military shelling is constant.
“The junta column is not in much of a position to leave its base to attack,” he said. “As the revolutionary forces attack them jointly, whenever they leave [the safety of their base], they can only remain in close proximity to the town center.”
“As the [junta troops] couldn’t defeat the [opposition], they just fired [shells] randomly,” he said.
In a statement on Thursday, the Ministry of Defense of the shadow National Unity Government, or NUG – made up of former civilian government leaders and anti-junta activists – described the Gyoe Taung village incident as a “military war crime.”
“We have witnessed the junta targeting civilians without exception for children, the elderly, pregnant women and religious leaders,” said NUG spokesperson Nay Phone Latt. “The NUG will make sure that all perpetrators are held accountable for these crimes and are given due punishment in the future.”
Deadly Sagaing shelling
The incident follows one on Sept. 10 when an unexploded military 60-millimeter shell went off in Wuntho’s Taung Boet Hla village, killing one child and seriously injuring six others who had been playing with the munition.
The situation in Gyoe Taung village also came as junta troops fired heavy artillery fire on Sagaing’s Kale township on Friday, killing a civilian woman and injuring a civilian man in Dine Kone village, residents said.
Three of 10 shells fired by the military hit the center of Dine Kone, killing 30-year-old Pae Hlaw, they said. The identity of the injured man was not immediately clear.
“One of their shells directly hit the home of the victims,” one resident said.
Two civilians in Kale’s Tat Oo Thida ward were injured by junta shelling on Thursday night, according to township residents, while on Wednesday, a civilian home in southern Kale’s Sha Pho village was hit by heavy artillery, killing four family members.
Attempts by RFA to contact Sai Naing Naing Kyaw, the junta’s minister of ethnic affairs and spokesman for Sagaing region, regarding the heavy artillery fire incidents, went unanswered Friday.
Junta troops have killed at least 414 children across Myanmar since the coup, the NUG’s ministry of youth and children’s affairs said in a June 6 statement.
According to statistics compiled by RFA, junta airstrikes and heavy artillery fire killed a total of 462 civilians and injured 812 others during the eight months from January to the end of August.