YANGON: At least 11 schoolchildren died in an air strike and firing on a Myanmar village, the United Nations children's agency said, an attack the country's junta said targeted rebels hiding in the area.
Myanmar has been in chaos since the military seized power in a coup in February last year, with nearly 2,300 civilians killed in a crackdown on dissent according to a local monitoring group.
The Sagaing region in the country's northwest has seen some of the fiercest fighting, and clashes between anti-coup fighters and the military have seen entire villages burned down.
The UN children's agency UNICEF condemned Friday's violence in Depeyin township in Sagaing.
"On 16 September, at least 11 children died in an air strike and indiscriminate fire in civilian areas," UNICEF said in a statement issued Monday.
It said schools must be safe and never targeted.
"At least 15 children from the same school are still missing," UNICEF said, calling for their immediate safe release.
Video footage obtained from a local community group shows a classroom with blood on the floor, damage to the roof and a mother crying over her son´s dead body.
The junta said they had sent troops in helicopters to Let Yet Kone village after receiving a tip-off that fighters from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) — an ethnic rebel group — and from a local anti-coup militia were moving weapons in the area.
The military accused the rebel fighters of using civilians as human shields, and said it had seized mines and explosives from the village.
"Security members gave necessary medical treatment and arranged to send patients to a nearby hospital," the military said in a statement.
Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun on Tuesday accused the KIA of taking villagers to a monastery and then firing on troops from there.
A villager contacted by AFP rejected the military's suggestions there were fighters in the area.
"They just attacked the school. They say someone attacked them, then they fought back but this is not true," said the villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity for their own safety.
The villager said the military had taken away some of the bodies and detained a number of people, including children and teachers.
Save the Children Asia Regional Director Hassan Noor expressed condolences to the families and said schools should be off-limits and the safety of students protected.
"How many more incidents like this need to take place before action is taken?" Noor said, urging the UN Security Council and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take swift action.
ASEAN has led so far fruitless diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar and its leaders will meet in Phnom Penh in November to discuss limited progress on a peace plan.
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