NAYPYITAW (REUTERS) - Most of the population of a Myanmar town near the Indian border have fled after buildings were set ablaze by artillery amid fighting between militia forces opposed to military rule and the army, according to residents and media reports.
About 10,000 people normally live in Thantlang in Chin State, but most had left to seek shelter in surrounding areas including some in India, a community leader said.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since a government led by pro-democracy veteran Aung San Suu Kyi was toppled on Feb 1, sparking nationwide anger, strikes, protests, and the emergence of anti-junta militia.
During fighting between militia forces and the army last weekend, about 20 homes were set ablaze, with photographs on social media showing buildings engulfed in flames.
Soldiers shot dead a Christian pastor who tried to extinguish a blaze, the Myanmar Now news portal reported, although state media disputed the report.
The Global New Light of Myanmar said the death of the pastor was being investigated and that soldiers had been ambushed by about 100 "terrorists" and both sides exchanged fire.
Militia fighters had overrun an army base earlier in September and the military responded with air strikes, said Salai Thang, a community leader, who said four civilians had been killed and 15 wounded in recent weeks.
The Chin Defence Force, a militia opposed to the military, said in a statement 30 soldiers had been killed.
Reuters could not independently confirm any of the claims and a military spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment.
A relative of the dead pastor told Reuters that most people had fled the town, although a handful of households remained including about 20 children in an orphanage run by the pastor.
"The murder of a Baptist minister and bombing of homes in Thantlang, Chin State are the latest examples of the living hell being delivered daily by junta forces against the people of Myanmar," Thomas Andrews, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said in a message on Twitter this week.
There has been an upsurge in bloodshed in areas like Chin State after the National Unity Government, a shadow underground administration set up by opponents of the military, declared an uprising on Sept 7 and called on the new militia, known as People's Defence Forces (PDF), to target the junta and its assets.
The attempts by the PDFs to take on the well-equipped army have often resulted in civilians being caught in cross fire and forced to flee.
Community leader Salai Thang said he was deeply concerned about the displaced people who were sheltering in nearby villages and some in India's Mizoram state.
"Those refugees are now badly struggling for food and shelter," he said by telephone.