A United Kingdom-based humanitarian group says two of its Myanmar staff are missing after the charred remains of more than 30 people were found following an attack that was blamed on the military.
In a statement on Saturday, Save the Children said two of its staff who had been travelling home after carrying out humanitarian work were caught up in the incident in eastern Mo So village and “remain missing”.
“We have confirmation that their private vehicle was attacked and burned out,” the group said.
Purported photos of the aftermath of the Christmas Eve massacre in Mo So, just outside Hpruso township in Kayah state where refugees were sheltering from an army offensive, spread on social media in the country, fueling outrage against the military that took power in February.
The accounts could not be independently verified. The photos showed the charred bodies of over 30 people in three burned-out vehicles.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military overthrew the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi nearly 11 months ago, claiming fraud in an election her party won. More than 1,300 people have been killed in a crackdown by security forces, according to a local monitoring group.
“People’s Defence Forces” (PDF) have sprung up across the country to fight the military, and have drawn the government troops into a bloody stalemate of clashes and reprisals.
A member of a local PDF in Mo So told AFP news agency that its fighters found the vehicles on Saturday morning after hearing the military had stopped several vehicles in Hpruso after clashes with its fighters nearby on Friday.
“When we went to check in the area this morning, we found dead bodies burnt in two trucks. We found 27 dead bodies,” he told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“We found 27 skulls,” said another witness who did not want to be named. “But there were other dead bodies on the truck, which had been burned to pieces so we couldn’t count them.”
Save the Children later said in a statement two of its Myanmar staff had been “caught up” in the incident.
The charity said it has since suspended its work in several regions.
Inger Ashing, chief executive of Save the Children, said the aid group “condemns this attack as a breach of International Humanitarian Law”.
“We are horrified at the violence carried out against innocent civilians and our staff,” he said.
In October, the group said its office in the western town of Thantlang was destroyed in shelling by the troops that also razed dozens of homes following clashes with a local anti-military group.
Myanmar’s military previously said its troops had been attacked in Hpruso on Friday after its troops attempted to stop seven cars driving in a “suspicious way”.
Troops had killed a number of people in the following clash, spokesman Zaw Min Tun told AFP, without giving details.
The Myanmar Witness monitor said it had confirmed local media reports and witness accounts from local fighters “that 35 people including children and women were burnt and killed by the military on 24th December Hpruso township”.
Satellite data also showed a fire had occurred about 1pm (06:30 GMT) on Friday in Hpruso, it added.
AFP said it was unable to confirm the reports surrounding the clash, but its digital verification reporters said the images purporting to show the incident had not appeared online before Friday evening.
PDF groups have surprised the army with their effectiveness, analysts have said, as the military struggles to break resistance to its rule.
Earlier this month, the United States said it was “outraged by credible and sickening reports” that Myanmar troops had seized 11 villagers, including children, in the Sagaing region and burned them alive.
Win Myat Aye, a member of a group of removed legislators, condemned the atrocity. “This is a cruel present from the military to our people on Christmas Day,” he said.