(Reuters) – Fighters of a local militia opposed to Myanmar’s junta have pulled back from the northwestern town of Mindat after days of assault by combat troops backed by artillery, a member of the group said on Sunday.
The United States and Britain called on the army to avoid civilian casualties and a shadow National Unity Government formed by loyalists of Myanmar’s detained elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, appealed for international help.
A spokesman for the junta did not answer calls for comment.
The fighting in the hill town of Mindat, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Indian border in Chin state, is some of the heaviest since the coup plunged Myanmar into chaos with daily protests, strikes and the emergence of new local militias.
“To avoid confrontation, we retreated out of concern over damage to the town,” said one fighter, adding that only women and children remained in the town of more than 40,000 that was now largely occupied by the army.
“Since all the boys and men are involved in this fight, all of them are on the run.”
The U.S.-funded RFA (Radio Free Asia) website quoted a member of the group as saying five of its fighters were killed, but it believed it had inflicted losses several times that many on the army, widely known as the Tatmadaw.
The local Chinworld news website said the Chinland Defence Force had captured three traffic police and an “informer” and would execute them if the army did not release Chin prisoners. Reuters was unable to contact the group for comment and there was no independent confirmation it had taken prisoners.
Army-controlled Myawaddy television had said on Saturday that some security forces were killed and others missing after attacks by “unscrupulous people” in Mindat. On Sunday it reported two other attacks on security forces over the past day – one at Kanpetlet, also in Chin state, and the other at Shwegu in northern Myanmar.
Chin is a majority Christian state in the predominantly Buddhist country.
The fighting in Mindat marks the emergence of the Chinland Defence Force, one of several new groups to spring up in opposition to the junta in a country that already had about two dozen ethnic armed groups.
The fighters also say they are part of the People’s Defence Forces of the shadow government, which called on the international community for help.
“We are sad that we can’t protect the people in Mindat. I salute the heroes in Mindat as well as the people in Myanmar risking their lives to resist the junta’s brutal oppression,” its prime minister, Mahn Win Khaing Than, said in a message.
“We hope the people understand that it will take time to train and equip the army.”
The U.S. and British embassies in Myanmar voiced concern for civilians in Mindat.
“The military’s use of weapons of war against civilians, including this week in Mindat, is a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold on to power,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement. “We call on the military to cease violence against civilians.”
Britain’s mission said evidence of atrocities should be sent to UN investigators “so perpetrators can be held to account”.
New York-based Human Rights Watch feared arbitrary arrests, torture, retaliation against militants’ families and other abuses, Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
Western nations have led condemnation of the junta and applied limited sanctions since it took power alleging fraud in an election won by Suu Kyi’s party in November. Its claims of irregularities were rejected by the electoral commission.
At least 790 people have been killed by the junta’s security forces in crackdowns on protests against its rule, says activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The military, which disputes that number, imposes tight restrictions on media, information and the Internet. Reuters cannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.
(Reporting by Reuters staff; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Clarence Fernandez and Alex Richardson)