Thirteen Myanmar police officers were killed in raids Friday by ethnic Rakhine rebels, the army said, in a brazen, coordinated attack on the country’s Independence Day which adds a dangerous new dimension to the conflict in the restive western state.
Rakhine has seen a surge in violence in recent weeks between rebels from the Arakan Army (AA) — who are seeking greater autonomy for their ethnic Rakhine group, who are Buddhists — and security forces, displacing thousands.
It has added a fresh layer of complexity and danger to the violence in an area already scored by deep ethnic and religious enmity, which saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims forced over the border by a bloody army crackdown in 2017.
Around 350 militants from the Arakan Army swarmed four police stations in northern Rakhine state early on Friday “killing 13 police and wounding nine others”, according to a statement released late Friday by the army chief’s office.
The militants stole scores of weapons and ammunition before army reinforcements struck back with two attack helicopters and infantry columns, added the statement, which was shared on a Russian social networking site.
“Strong action will be taken against the AA insurgents by security forces as they are making things more unstable and complicated in Rakhine,” it said.
In a Facebook post late Friday the AA said three of its fighters “had been killed and some were injured” by Myanmar forces.
Myanmar marked its Independence Day on Friday — a highly-symbolic celebration of the declaration of freedom from British colonial rule in 1948.
But the country has since been cut by endless ethnic conflicts in its borderlands.
War and police
The AA told AFP that it had carried out the raids, blaming the military for using the police stations as a base from which to fire heavy artillery.
“The army brought the police into the war two weeks ago,” AA spokesman Khine Thukha said by phone, adding that the group had been under fire the whole day from army helicopters.
The AA later said “14 prisoners of war” taken in the clashes had been freed.
The UN’s humanitarian agency said Thursday it was concerned for the estimated 2,500 people currently displaced, many of whom are sheltering in local monasteries.
The AA was sidelined by an unexpected temporary ceasefire declared unilaterally by Myanmar’s military two weeks ago.
The army vowed to stop fighting for four months against a number of armed groups in Kachin and Shan states on the other side of the country.
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi made the peace process a priority when her party swept to power in landmark 2015 elections.
Some two dozen conflicts continue to fester around the country’s border areas, many dating back to independence 70 years ago.
The AA has said the army is using the truce elsewhere to focus efforts on Rakhine.
Before Friday’s attack, observers said no major troop had redeployments had taken place.
A damning UN report has accused the military of genocide against the Rohingya in its “clearance operations”.
Here is a video explaining the role of the Arakan Army: