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Thousands flee as Myanmar's army intensifies air strikes against Kachin separatists

Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee Myanmar's northern state of Kachin as the army stepped up air strikes and artillery fire against separatist fighters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) this week amid widespread reports of rights violations by government forces. 

Human rights groups have criticised the military's intensified attacks on the Kachin fighters, arguing that the military campaign and associated rights violations are being launched at a time when the world's focus was centred on Rakhine state and the plight of the Rohingya people. 

Myanmar's government continues to dismiss all reports of violations by state troops. 

The head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mark Cutts told AFP that around 4000 people have been displaced in Kachin in April alone whilst others remain within the conflict zone. 

"We have received reports from local organisations saying that there are still many civilians who remain trapped in conflict-affected areas," Mr Cutts added. 

"Our biggest concern is for the safety of civilians - including pregnant women, the elderly, small children and people with disabilities. We must ensure that these people are protected."

The UK's minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field tweeted: "Horrified to hear reports of a surge in violence in Kachin, Burma. We call upon the Burmese military to show restraint and to protect civilians."

Last month a UN fact finding mission on Myanmar called on the government to stop dismissing reports rights violations, reiterating that “the body of information and materials we are collecting is concrete and overwhelming."

On Friday, the US embassy in Yangon expressed concern at the situation, stating,

“We call upon the government, including the military to protect civilian populations and allow humanitarian access to be delivered to those affected by conflicts.”

“It points at human rights violations of the most serious kind, in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law," chair of the Fact-Finding Mission, Marzuki Darusman said, delivering the oral report at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month. 

“The events we are examining in detail in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states are products of a longstanding, systemic pattern of human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar,” report noted.

“Any denial of the seriousness of the situation in Rakhine, the reported human rights violations, and the suffering of the victims, is untenable,” the experts said. “We have hundreds of credible accounts of the most harrowing nature.” 

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Warning of further displacement and civilian suffering if the Myanmese army continued its intensified attacks, the spokesperson for the KIA, Col Naw Bu told Reuters on Friday, "the army is sending more troops from the lower part of Myanmar and that's why the fighting will be more intense."

"The number of refugees could increase and they could suffer more challenges," he added.