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ROME – A Catholic Church sheltering nearly 200 people in the town of Loikaw in northern Myanmar has been struck in an ongoing series of air strikes and mortar attacks, leaving those refuging there unsure of where to go as the number of displaced grows.
Speaking to Italian news agency SIR, the official news outlet of the Italian bishops, Father Francis Soe Naing, chancellor of the Loikaw diocese, said that as of Tuesday, “Heavy fighting has been going on for three days. We are attacked not only with heavy weapons but also with airplanes and helicopters.”
Amid the chaos, many have evacuated the city, and nearly 200 people, most of whom are women, children, elderly, and infirm, have sought refuge in the town’s cathedral of Christ the King.
“There are many internally displaced people in the cathedral complex. We will move to another place because it is impossible to stay here,” he said, noting that so far, “we are all safe and surviving thanks to God’s protection. But the war has entered the city of Loikaw.”
In a sign of just how unsafe current circumstances are, one of the bell towers of the Sacred Heart church in nearby Doukhu was destroyed by a mortar attack.
“The risk is very great. We are in the middle of a battlefield,” Naing said, noting that Loikaw is “hit almost every day by weapons, aerial bombardments, and helicopters.”
“People run away in search of a safe place and there are now very few people left in the city,” he said.
Each of Loikaw’s other six churches have already evacuated, and the 200 sheltering in the cathedral alongside a few priests and nuns from the diocese are uncertain of where to go.
So far, roughly 50,000 of Loikaw’s 90,000 inhabitants, around two thirds of the population, have already fled their homes in search of safer places to stay.
According to Naing, the 200 people refuging in the cathedral “will be here as long as the situation allows.”
“We don’t know what will happen to us. However, we believe that God will protect us,” he said.
According to UNICEF, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, at least four children have been killed during an escalation in fighting between government and opposition forces in the past week.
On Jan. 8 body of a 13-year-old boy was found in the town of Matupi, while in the state of Chin a 12-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy were wounded with by heavy weaponry amid an onslaught of intense air and mortar attacks.
On the same day, a 7-year-old girl was injured in heavy gunfire in Myanmar’s northern Kayin State. A day before, on Jan. 7, a 14-year-old boy and two 17-year-olds were shot to death in he Dawei Township in the country’s Tanintharyi region.
On Jan. 5, two girls aged 1 and 4 were wounded by artillery shells in Namkham, Shan State.
UNICEF said in a statement that it is “deeply concerned” by the escalation of fighting in Myanmar and condemns “the reported use of air strikes and heavy weapons in civilian areas.”
“We are particularly outraged by the attacks on children that have occurred during this escalation of fighting across the country,” they said, and urged leaders to make the protection of children an “an absolute priority,” calling for leaders to “take all necessary actions to ensure that children are kept away from fighting and that communities are not used as targets.”
They also called for an “independent investigations into these incidents, so that those responsible can be called to answer for them. We offer our deepest condolences to the families of the victims.”
According to a UN Humanitarian Needs Overview published in December by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), current turmoil in Myanmar is expected to drive nearly half of the population into poverty at the beginning of this year.
Myanmar fell into chaos after the coup last February, when the military ousted the Democratically elected government and seized power. Mass protests and demonstrations ensued, with militant groups popping up throughout the country to resist security forces’ attempts to quash dissent.
Human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates that so far, Myanmar’s military have killed at least 1,447 civilians and detained nearly 8,500.
After the recent escalation in fighting, rumors have circulated that the head of Myanmar’s military has removed the head of the air force, 57-year-old Maung Maung Kyaw, a general with an elite military background, due to the global criticism his bombing campaign has drawn. These rumors have yet to be confirmed.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen