Myanmar troops accused of holding children hostage during clashes

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Feb 28 (Reuters) - Myanmar soldiers took a group of civilians, including at least 80 children, hostage for two days during clashes with rebels before releasing most of them on Monday, according to media reports, a rebel group and a shadow government statement.

The incident happened in the Sagaing region in Myanmar, which has been the scene of fierce fighting between militia groups opposed to the military coup.

Air strikes and raids by the military at the weekend in Yinmabin, a township about 120 km (75 miles) west of Mandalay, had driven out most villagers, but dozens of children and some teachers were stranded at a monastery that also housed a school, according to media reports.

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The Irrawaddy newspaper said on Sunday that 85 children and 10 teachers had been taken hostage, citing residents in the area.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports and a spokesman for the junta did not respond to requests for comment.

The National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government set up by opponents of last year's coup, said some of the children held were under 12 years old and some younger than five, accusing the army of a "grave violation" of international law.

A member of the area's People's Defence Force said most had been released by Monday morning when troops withdrew, but some adults were arrested.

"We could not fight the troops as they were holding the children," said the militia member, who asked not to be identified.

The junta has labelled the NUG and the people's defence forces as "terrorist" groups.

The military has been accused in the past of using civilians as human shields and for taking over schools and monasteries to use as bases.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said such events showed the military was operating with "total impunity".

More than 1,500 people have been killed in a crackdown by Myanmar's security forces since last February's coup removed a government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, according to a Thai-based activists group. The military, which has disputed the death tally, is also fighting on multiple fronts with armed pro-democracy groups in the countryside and ethnic minority forces.

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Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Ed Davies

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