YANGON: A World Health Organization vehicle carrying swabs from patients to be tested for coronavirus came under gunfire in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, killing the driver and a government health worker, the United Nations said on Tuesday (Apr 21).
It did not say who carried out the attack in a region where fighting between the army and Arakan Army insurgents has intensified despite global calls for a ceasefire over the pandemic that killed five and caused 119 infections in Myanmar.
The area has endured a strict lockdown for months, making independent reporting difficult.
The driver, Pyae Sone Win Maung, had died in the state's Minbya township on Monday, the United Nations office in Myanmar said in a Facebook post.
"The WHO colleague was driving a marked UN vehicle from Sittwe to Yangon, transporting COVID-19 surveillance samples in support of the Ministry of Health and Sports," it added.
Both Myanmar's army and the Arakan Army denied responsibility for the attack and accused each other.
In a statement, the information ministry said the UN-marked car came under gunfire from insurgents while carrying swabs from Rakhine to the biggest city, Yangon. The Arakan Army blamed the military.
Government troops and insurgents from the Arakan Army, which wants greater autonomy for Myanmar's western region, have been locked in fierce fighting for more than a year, but clashes have intensified recently.
"Why would the military shoot them?" replied Major General Tun Tun Nyi, a military spokesman, when Reuters asked about the incident by telephone.
"They are working for us, for our country. We have the responsibility for that ... Everyone who has a brain knows that. If you are a Myanmar citizen, you shouldn’t ask that."
The health worker Aung Myo Oo had been transferred to hospital in the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe.
"MY HEART IS BROKEN": DRIVER'S FATHER
The driver's father, Htay Win Maung, said his son, aged 28, had worked for the WHO in Sittwe for three years.
The driver had earlier promised to ring his parents, he said.
"He asked me not to call him when he was driving ... That was the last time we spoke," he told AFP by phone.
"My heart is broken for him," he told Reuters by telephone. "I am trying to calm myself thinking he died in serving his duty at the frontline. He went there in the midst of fighting when many people didn’t dare to go."
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted his condolences, adding it was "tragic to lose a life while keeping the world safe."
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the attack. He called for "a full and transparent investigation" and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, his spokesman said in a statement.
Britain and the United States are among the countries that have called for an end to fighting in Rakhine, not least to help protect vulnerable communities from the pandemic.
The Arakan Army declared a month-long ceasefire for April, along with two ethnic armed groups, citing the pandemic. The army rejected the plea, with a spokesman saying a previous truce declared by the government went unheeded by insurgents.