Myanmar’s army is reportedly emptying villages in a western state to boost defenses against rebels

 BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s military has been emptying villages on the outskirts of the capital of the western state of Rakhine as part of an evident effort to defend against expected attacks by a powerful rebel group that has captured most of the surrounding area, according to residents, a local activist group and media reports [[{“value”:”

BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s military has been emptying villages on the outskirts of the capital of the western state of Rakhine as part of an evident effort to defend against expected attacks by a powerful rebel group that has captured most of the surrounding area, according to residents, a local activist group and media reports on Tuesday.

The action over the past few days to defend the state capital, Sittwe, came a week after the Arakan Army, the ethnic armed organization of the state’s Muslim Rohingya minority, vowed to capture the army outposts in the city.

Rakhine is the current hotspot for fighting in Myanmar’s nationwide civil war, in which pro-democracy guerrillas and ethnic minority armed forces battle the country’s military rulers, who took power in 2021 after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

If the Arakan Army captures Sittwe, it would be the first state capital to fall to the rebel forces. Sittwe is also strategically important as its location offers easy access to the Bay of Bengal.

The Arakan Army, which seeks autonomy from Myanmar’s central government, began a largely successful offensive in Rakhine — its home ground — about six months ago, gaining control of nine of 17 townships in Rakhine and one in adjacent Chin state.

In early June that the group declared it would target the military’s outposts in Rakhine’s remaining eight townships. It already controls all three townships bordering Sittwe, about 340 kilometers (235 miles) southwest of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.

A resident of Palin Pyin, a village about 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of Sittwe, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that soldiers and civil authorities on Sunday forced the village elders, without giving a reason, to tell the residents to leave within five days. The deadline was later shortened to three days.

Palin Pyin is a fishing village located at the confluence of the Mayu and Kywee Tae rivers, which mark the border between the townships of Sittwe and Rathedaung, which is already under the Arakan Army’s control.

The villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears arrest by the military, said residents were told to move to Sittwe town and its immediate suburbs, taking their belongings, including whatever elements of their housing they could bring.

She said members of the security forces had been planting landmines, and building fences and watchtowers around the village since the end of May to guard against any attacks, which could come by river.

The woman said her family had moved on Monday to a village in Sittwe’s suburbs after being warned by the authorities, who had set up an outpost in her home village’s Buddhist monastery. Residents of four nearby villages also moved with difficulty to Sittwe’s environs, some sheltering in monasteries.

Two town residents also told the AP that their relatives who had been living in outlying villages to the north confirmed that people from five villages had been told to leave their homes in order to protect the city from attack by the Arakan Army.

The All Arakan Students’ & Youths’ Congress-AASYC, an independent youth organization from Rakhine state opposed to the military government, said in a statement released on Monday that the army was planning to demolish 12 villages along the bank of the Kywee Tae river after forcing their residents to leave by Friday this week.

The statement claimed the villagers were given five days, instead of being forced to leave immediately, by the chief minister of Rakhine state military council in order to avoid a situation similar to one at the end of May in Byine Phyu village, just outside of Sittwe town.

In that case, the military and their allies were accused of killing 76 people in the village, though details remain hazy. The military claimed that only three people were killed when they tried to grab a gun from a soldier, but other reports have suggested dozens were killed because the village was supposedly offering its support to the Arakan Army.

News from the area cannot be verified independently because of severe restrictions on movement.

After the incident in Byine Phyu, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement expressing deeply concern about escalating violence in Myanmar.

U.N. Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that aerial bombings and human rights violations are constantly reported in many parts of Myanmar and “those responsible must be held to account.”

Dujarric said the U.N. secretary-general “calls on all parties to the conflict to exercise maximum restraint, prioritize protection of civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law and prevent further incitement of communal tension and violence.”

Grant Peck, The Associated Press

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