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Thousands flee airstrikes in Myanmar, complicating crisis

MAE SAKOEP, Thailand (AP) — Thai soldiers began sending back some of the thousands of people who have fled a series of airstrikes by the military in neighboring Myanmar, people familiar with the matter said Monday. The insecurity on the border added a new dimension to an already volatile crisis set off by a coup in Myanmar.

The weekend strikes, which sent ethnic Karen people seeking safety in Thailand, represented another escalation in the violent crackdown by Myanmar’s junta on protests of its Feb. 1 takeover. On Saturday, more than 100 people were killed in and around demonstrations throughout the country — the bloodiest single day since the takeover.

The violence by the military — both on the border and in cities around the country — raised the question of whether the international community would respond more forcefully than it has thus far to a coup that ousted the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and reversed years of progress toward democracy.

In response to reports of people fleeing the airstrikes, Thailand’s prime minister had said earlier Monday that the country didn’t want “mass migration” but that it would also take human rights issues into consideration.

READ MORE: Myanmar forces kill dozens in deadliest day since coup

But later in the day, three people with knowledge of the matter said Thai soldiers had begun to force people to return to Myanmar.

“They told them it was safe to go back even though it is not safe. They were afraid to go back but they had no choice,” said a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network, a group of Karen civil society organizations in Myanmar.

Two other people confirmed that the refugees were being sent back to Myanmar. All three spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment, saying it was still waiting for information.

Myanmar aircraft carried out three strikes overnight Sunday, according to Dave Eubank, a member of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief agency that delivers medical and other assistance to villagers. The strikes severely injured one child but caused no apparent fatalities, he said. Earlier strikes sent about 2,500 people into northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, according to the agency.

One witness described a “chaotic scene” as he watched hundreds of people cross the river border Sunday into Mae Hong Son.

“There were many children and women. It seemed like they had basic supplies to sustain themselves, but I don’t know how long they can last without help,” said La Rakpaoprai, who buys snacks and other goods in the mountainous border village of Mae Sakoep and sells them in remote areas.

Earlier Monday, Thai soldiers in the area weren’t letting journalists or curious locals approach or speak to those who had fled, but a soldier confirmed that refugees were there.

The area is situated deep in Thailand’s Salawin National Park and can only be reached by an arduous drive up winding mountain roads, through dry forests, and down along a rocky stream bed.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said Monday morning that his government was preparing for a possible influx of people.

“We don’t want to have mass migration into our territory, but we will consider human rights, too,” Prayut said.

Video shot Sunday showed a group of villagers, including many young children, resting in a forest clearing inside Myanmar after fleeing their homes. They carried their possessions in bundles and baskets. In addition to those who have fled to Thailand, an estimated 10,000 people are believed to be displaced inside Myanmar’s northern Karen state, according to the Free Burma Rangers.

The bombings may have been in retaliation for a reported attack by the Karen National Liberation Army in which they claimed to have captured a Myanmar government military outpost on Saturday morning. The group is fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people.

According to Thoolei News, an online site that carries official information from the Karen National Union, eight government soldiers were captured and 10 were killed. The report said one Karen guerrilla died.

Before the overnight bombings, Myanmar military aircraft had attacked a Karen guerrilla position in Karen state’s Mutraw district on Sunday, according to humanitarian workers. Two guerrillas were killed and many more were wounded in those attacks.

On Saturday night, two Myanmar military planes twice bombed a village in the same district, killing at least two villagers.

The government has battled the Karen fighters on and off for years — as it has with other ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy — but the airstrikes are a worrying development at a time when the junta is also violently suppressing anti-coup protests in cities across the country.

As of Sunday, at least 459 people have been killed since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The true toll is though to be higher.

On Saturday alone, at least 114 people across the country were killed by security forces, including several children — a toll that prompted a U.N. human rights expert to accuse the junta of committing “mass murder” and criticize the international community for not doing enough to stop it.

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters his administration is working on a response but offered no details. The United States has already levied new sanctions on the junta, as have other countries — but they have had little effect so far.

“It’s terrible. It’s absolutely outrageous. Based on the reporting I’ve gotten, an awful lot of people have been killed. Totally unnecessary,” Biden said.

READ MORE: Myanmar protest deaths reach 320 as U.S., U.K., impose sanctions

The U.N. Security Council is likely to hold closed consultations on the escalating situation in Myanmar, diplomats said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release the information ahead of an official announcement. The council has condemned the violence and called for a restoration of democracy, but has not yet considered possible sanctions against the military, which would require support or an abstention by Myanmar’s neighbor and friend China.

Despite the violence by security forces, protests have continued, and many used funerals of those killed on Saturday to show their resistance to the coup.

In Yangon, the country’s largest city, friends and family gathered Monday to say farewell to 49-year-old Mya Khaing, who was fatally shot on Saturday. As his coffin was moved toward the crematorium, mourners sang a defiant song from an earlier 1988 uprising against military rule.

“There is no pardon for you till the end of the world,” the mourners sang. “We will never forgive what you have done.”