By Peter Kenny
GENEVA (AA) - The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said Friday it is concerned by reports of mounting civilian casualties and growing displacement triggered by the latest escalation of clashes in western Myanmar.
It urged warring parties to cease fighting due to the coronavirus threat.
UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said at a virtual UN news conference that recent local reports cite at least 21 civilians killed as clashes hit villages along the border between Myanmar's Rakhine and Chin states earlier this month.
"Losses among the civilian population have become frequent and underscore the human cost and heavy impact of a ceaseless conflict on the local communities," he said.
Myanmar authorities estimate more than 61,000 people are newly displaced in Rakhine State as of March 16, representing an increase of some 10,000 people compared to the preceding month, said Mahecic.
They are sheltered in 133 sites, and another 4,800 people are displaced in Chin State in 34 locations.
Fighting between the Myanmar Armed Forces and the Arakan Army has continued since a rise in tensions in late 2018, he said.
"A sharp upward trend in civilian casualties has been observed since February of this year," said Mahecic. "We are adding our voice to this week's appeal by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging warring parties across the world to cease their fighting in support of the bigger battle against the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
Myanmar has so far reported three coronavirus cases.
Civilians in areas ravaged by conflict, especially those displaced, are especially vulnerable in this global public health emergency.
The latest displacement comes on top of more than 130,000 already-displaced people in Rakhine State, most of whom are Rohingya, who have been displaced since 2012.
"The number of people affected by the conflict is likely to be significantly higher as population movements continue, and there are frequent reports of new arrivals at some displacement sites," warned Mahecic.
Families forced to flee have sought shelter when possible in neighboring villages and communities.
"They are mainly taking refuge in religious buildings, schools and with host families. In remote areas, people affected by the clashes are making shelters of bamboo and tarpaulin in paddy fields," said Mahecic.