Four Rohingya children were killed and six other people injured in an explosion Tuesday in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, villagers said, though it is unclear whether the blast was caused by a landmine or shelling by the government military or the rebel Arakan Army, which have been engaged in hostilities since late 2018.
The explosion occurred around 10:30 a.m. local time while a 25-year-old teacher named Ali Kuharl and some children climbed atop a hill near their school in Htikehtoopauk Rohingya Muslim village in Buthidaung township to look for firewood, residents told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I heard the blast around 10:30 a.m. while I was in the village,” said one resident who declined to be named for fear of his safety. “The blast came from the hill west of the village. It was very close to the village.”
Residents said those who died in the blast include Hussein Allah, 10; Abdul Raman, 10; Mahmad Armein, eight; and Arraf Ullah, eight.
The six other persons who were injured, including Ali Kuharl, were taken to Buthidaung Hospital for emergency treatment. Two of the six were badly wounded and are in critical condition, they said.
“Four children died. The injured ones were taken to Buthidaung hospital. The children were killed on the spot,” said a local village elder who requested anonymity for fear of his safety.
The man also said it is unclear which army was responsible for the explosion.
“We don’t know if the military or the AA is responsible,” he said. “Some people assume it was a blast from a falling mortar shell, and others think it was landmine explosion.”
Residents told RFA that Myanmar military troops were stationed a month ago on the hill where the explosion occurred and that they now have moved to another hill near the village.
One of them said officials from the military outfit came to inspect the explosion site.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the Arakan force had nothing to do with the deadly blast.
“We’ve got no connection to this incident,” he told RFA.
“What we’ve learned from our past experiences is that the Myanmar military has always planted landmines in areas where they are stationed,” he said. “After they go, they sometimes leave these landmines behind. One of them must have killed these villagers.”
Military blames AA
RFA tried several times to reach Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the Myanmar’s military’s Western Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, but could not get through to him for comment.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun confirmed that troops had inspected the site of the blast.
“We have inspected the site and assume it was a mine explosion,” he said. “It was a pretty big mine. It was a big one like the one they [the AA] used to plant.”
“We have released information on this issue very often. We assume these are the kind of mines they planted along the Yangon-Sittwe highway,” he said, referring to deadly explosions caused by the AA on the main roadway between Myanmar's commercial hub and the Rakhine capital.
Two police officers were killed and two others were injured when vehicles in a police convoy hit a mine on Feb. 27 along the highway in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township.
“That landmine was created by putting explosives and iron pieces into a plastic bucket that was designed to explode when it was stepped on or hit,” Zaw Min Tun said. “The military was never stationed in that area.”
Since 2016, there have been several instances of homemade mines exploding along the Yangon-Sittwe highway which runs through Ann, Myebon, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Ponnagyun townships in Rakhine state. Most of the incidents occurred when military vehicles passed through the areas.
Northern Rakhine state has been rocked by an escalation in hostilities between the Myanmar military and the AA, an ethnic insurgent group fighting for greater autonomy in the state, since late November 2018.
The government instructed the military to “crush” the AA after its fighters carried out deadly coordinated attacks on four police outposts in Buthidaung township a year ago.
Dozens of civilians have been killed, and a local relief group estimates that more than 100,000 people have been displaced during the uptick in hostilities.
Northern Rakhine was also the site of a brutal military-led crackdown on Rohingya communities that began in 2017, which left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 across the border and into Bangladesh.
About 600,000 Rohingya still live in the region, with more than 120,000 Rohingya and other Muslims housed in crowded displacement camps in the state since 2012 when their homes were destroyed during a spate of communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.