Myanmar army kills 'reporter' in custody: Press body

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's press council on Saturday said the army had admitted to shooting dead a man in its custody who activists claim was a reporter detained after covering clashes near the conflict-hit eastern border.

Aung Naing was gunned down as he tried to flee detention in Kyaikmaraw town in south-eastern Mon state on Oct 4, the interim Myanmar Press Council (MPC) said citing a rare statement issued by the military.

He "tried to escape by fighting with a soldier and attempting to steal his weapon" said the document seen by AFP, adding that Aung Naing was suspected of being a member of a local armed group.

This was contradicted by activists and local media reports which said he was a freelance journalist covering unrest in the region, where fighting between government troops and rebels has flared in recent weeks.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Aung Naing was thought to have worked for several local news titles but the MPC was unable to confirm his status as a reporter.

The military statement issued Thursday - a first of its kind from the army which ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for decades - added the man had been buried in Shwe Wah Chaung village, near where he died.

MPC secretary Kyaw Min Swe told AFP the burial meant it was difficult to verify the army version of events.

"This is a big question to ask the military, because they cannot show the dead body," he said, also questioning why the group had received news of the death nearly three weeks after the shooting.

On Friday the CPJ said the death of Aung Naing was "reprehensible", adding that he was the first reporter killed in the former junta-run nation since 2007.

"Civilian authorities must investigate the military's accounting of his death, which has the initial hallmarks of a cover-up," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's Southeast Asia representative, in a statement.

"Any soldier found responsible for his extrajudicial killing or mistreatment before his death must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Reporters were regularly detained under the junta, which meted out long jail sentences to journalists while choking off information with some of the world's most draconian censorship rules.

Reforms implemented by the current regime, including freeing most political prisoners and lifting pre-publication press scrutiny, have been lauded by the international community as the country opens up.

But the jailing of several journalists this year have raised fears that Myanmar could be sliding backwards on media freedoms.

A quasi-civilian regime, which replaced outright junta rule in 2011, has said ending decades of ethnic minority insurgency is a major part of its reform efforts.

But a nationwide ceasefire has so far proved elusive and clashes in eastern Myanmar have cast fresh doubt on the peace process.

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