A schoolgirl was killed and at least five other children were injured by a stray artillery shell when two Burmese army units mistakenly exchanged fire with each other for nearly three hours on Thursday near the Kachin State jade mining town of Hpakant, according to local sources.
An aid worker who asked not to be named said that the girl was 14-year-old student returning from school in Maw-wan Lay, a neighborhood in Hpakant. The area has recently been besieged by clashes between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Although Burmese media reported that the clash, which took place between 3 pm and 6 pm on Thursday, was between government forces and the KIA, sources who spoke to The Irrawaddy claimed that the fighting was between two groups of Burmese troops that failed to identify each in the confusion of combat.
The sources said that the dramatic buildup of Burmese troops since last month was to blame for the tragic mishap.
“A lot of Burmese troops have been deployed here recently, and sometimes they don’t even recognize each other as being on the same side because they come from different parts of Burma,” said an aid worker.
Since yesterday’s incident, all public schools in and around Hpakant have been closed, amid fears that clashes could break out again at any time. Local sources said that fighting between the KIA and Burmese troops is occurring on an almost daily basis.
Since August, the Burmese army has intensified its offensive against the KIA’s bases around Hpakant, forcing some 8,000 people to flee to the town, where they are currently staying in 43 temporary shelters, sources said.
Hpakant is the main center of Burma’s lucrative jade-mining industry, and a key source of revenue for both the government and the KIA. In April, the government ordered the suspension of mining operations in areas under its control, but the KIA has allowed mines in its territory to continue running despite the conflict.
According to the Kachin News Group, up to 140 Burmese troops were killed in a massive explosion on Aug. 29 at a mine that had been turned into a temporary base. The KIA claimed responsibility for planting an explosive at the site, setting off a much larger blast in the Burmese army’s ammunition stockpile.
Fighting between the two sides began when a 17-year ceasefire collapsed last June. Efforts to end the hostilities have so far proven futile, despite several rounds of peace talks.
In a recent interview, KIA deputy army chief Gun Maw said that the group wants more than just a return to the situation that existed before the current fighting began. Rather, he said, Burma should aim to restore the terms of the Panglong Agreement, reached between ethnic leaders and independence hero Aung San in 1947.
Under the agreement—nullified after the military seized power in 1962—ethnic groups are guaranteed greater autonomy and the right to secede from the Union of Burma.