Rights group calls for aid to civilians in Myanmar's north

BANGKOK — Myanmar's military should ensure humanitarian aid reaches all civilians who have been affected by clashes in the country's north between the army and an ethnic armed group, an international rights group urged Friday.

Hostilities between Myanmar's military and guerrillas of the Kachin Independence Army escalated in mid-January to include three townships of Kachin state. The Kachin force is one of the most powerful ethnic militias and has skirmished with the military after a 17-year-old cease-fire pact broke down in 2011. Since then, more than 120,000 people have been displaced in the region along the border with China.

The ongoing crisis in the state has been overshadowed by one in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, where almost 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group have fled to Bangladesh since last August to escape a brutal crackdown by the military and social and economic discrimination.

New York-based Human Rights Watch urged in a statement that Myanmar's military allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians caught up in the military's current offensive utilizing heavy weapons and airstrikes.

Government attacks targeting Kachin rebels killed at least five civilians and wounded more than a dozen others in late January, according to activists and a local lawmaker. Aid groups active in Kachin also said that more than 3,000 other civilians — miners of amber and their families — are believed to be trapped in the military offensive in Tanai township.

"The embattled civilian population in Kachin state should not be forgotten amid the dire humanitarian situation facing the Rohingya," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Both the Myanmar army and the KIA should do everything possible to ensure that aid reaches civilians in need."

The United Nations last week said its agencies and their humanitarian partners are concerned about the safety of civilians in these areas, likewise urging the Myanmar government to guarantee the protection of civilians and safe access to humanitarian assistance for all those affected by the conflict. It said in a statement that it has not been granted access to conflict-affected civilians.

More than 5,000 Kachin civilians marched on Monday in the Kachin capital, Myitkyina, to call for a halt to the military's offensive and to allow civilians trapped by the fighting to seek refuge.

"The current situation in Kachin state is extremely worrying because it's not just one or two areas, it's happening everywhere," said Gum Sha Aung of the Joint Strategy Team, a coalition of local groups seeking to coordinate humanitarian activities in northern Myanmar. "The military consistently hinder humanitarian assistance such as food transportation in the region, which is an outright violation against the international humanitarian law."

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