Several hours after an artillery strike by the Burmese government killed three civilians and injured four in Laiza town, a government spokesperson has come out to deny that the military was involved in the attack in northern Burma.
Ye Thut, a deputy information minister and spokesperson for President Thein Sein, said in a Facebook post on Monday afternoon that the Burmese military had not been active near Laiza at the time of the artillery attack.
“On the morning of January 14, the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] did not undertake any attacks around the Lajayang area,” he claimed on his Facebook page, which is being followed by thousands of people. “There were no military flights at all in and around that area,” he added.
Lajayang is a strategically important mountain area around Laiza valley in Kachin State that has been the focus of much of the recent fighting between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Ye Thut claimed that it remained unclear who had fired the artillery rounds into the center of Laiza town. “The news of the explosion needs to be confirmed independently and why it happened,” he wrote.
There were no further government statements about the incident.
On Monday morning around 8 am, two artillery strikes with 105-mm howitzers canons hit the center of Laiza town within minutes of each other, striking a group of Kachin villagers around a fire and a house with several people inside.
The civilians were thrown through the air and hit by shrapnel, according to reporters of The Irrawaddy who were on the scene.
One man was instantly killed in the strike, while a teenager and one adult reportedly died later at the local hospital. Four other villagers, including a toddler, were seriously injured. For a while panic struck in the town and many Kachin villagers talked about fleeing Laiza and crossing into China.
Since last month, fighting in Burma’s northern Kachin State has intensified and the government has launched frequent airstrikes on KIA positions using fighter jets and helicopters in an effort to conquer the mountains around Laiza, a small town on the Burma-China border where the KIA headquarters is located.
Monday’s attack was the first time that Laiza was directly hit. The incident seems to indicate that the Burmese army is increasingly prepared to use heavy firepower in and around Laiza valley, despite the presence of thousands of civilians.
La Rip, coordinator of the Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees (RANIR), which coordinates aid for the displaced villagers, said an estimated 15,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are sheltering in camps in Laiza, while another 20,000 residents are hiding in their homes.
He said the civilians were caught between the Chinese border and the escalating fighting in the surrounding mountains.
“Continuing indiscriminate artillery shelling towards Laiza from Burmese government troop based area in Daw Phone Yang begun since December 14, 2012 and today’s [strikes] are the first ever that fell into Laiza residential area, killing and injuring civilians,” he wrote in an email.
“Laiza residents and IDPs are terrified and residents from the quarter where the shells fell are now being evacuated to areas closer to the border. They are sheltering along the Laiza river bank, which divides China and Burma,” La Rip said.
Authorities in neighboring Yunnan Province, in China, announced on Sunday that they were preparing for an influx of Kachin refugees due to an increase in the fighting and had prepared four camps with emergency supplies for 10,000 refugees, Chinese media reported.
An estimated 100,000 villagers have been displaced in the whole of Kachin State since fighting in the region began 18 months ago.