The bodies of seven ethnic Shan villagers have been found in shallow graves, apparently executed with shots to the head, as accusations fly between warring ethnic armed groups over responsibility for their deaths amid fighting that has displaced several thousand civilians.

Senior officials of an ethnic Shan armed group and a Shan political party accused forces of the Ta’Ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) of killing the seven men from Mine Gone village in Kyaukme township on February 7.

TNLA vice chair Tar Gote Ja denied his group was responsible. “We don’t do those kind of lawless activities. If they have evidence, then show it,” he told The Myanmar Times by telephone. “Rumours” were spreading among people, he said.

The area is reported to be now under the control of government troops who unearthed the bodies.

What began as a territorial fight between two ethnic armed groups, which have split over last year’s government-brokered “nationwide” ceasefire, risks developing into a wider communal conflict between ethnic Shan and Ta’Ang (Palaung) villagers who have long lived together in northern Shan State.

Colonel Sai Hsu, spokesperson of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), told reporters in Kyaukme after meeting relatives of the victims that TNLA troops had killed the seven ethnic Shan civilians.

“We already have evidence they were murdered by shots to their heads,” he said.

The SSPP is an ethnic armed group that has offered to mediate in the fighting between the TNLA and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).

Sai Maung, a central executive committee of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, a political party with elected MPs, also accused the TNLA of responsibility. He said TNLA fighters had seized 10 people from Mine Gone village on February 6 then took them to Tot Sang village where seven were killed the next day. He said Tot Sang villagers buried them in a nearby Chinese cemetery.

“TNLA soldiers killed them because they found two old walkie-talkies. They released three of them. They also threatened to burn down houses in Tot Sang,” he said.

He said some of the villagers belonged to the Myatta Sattwun organisation involved in microfinance using funds from Lashio’s Mansu monastery, and that the villagers had received walkie-talkies to communicate among themselves.

Sayadaw U Kalyarna, a monk of Myatta Sattwun in Kyaukme township, confirmed that at least one of the victims was a member of the organisation.

“We have seen the dead bodies but I am not certain they are all these seven missing villagers,” he said.

The monk showed pictures of the dead bodies, which were taken by villagers and sent by cell phone. Pictures also showed government soldiers digging up the graves.

According to the SSPP, two villagers were in their 50s, one was 40 and one was 22 years old. Relatives of the other three have not been traced.

Villages are still seeking refuge in the small town of Kyaukme to escape continued fighting between the TNLA and RCSS.

Sai Maung, who is helping resettle IDPs, said over 3000 people had arrived in temporary camps. The total number of displaced was far higher because many others had gone to stay with relatives in other townships, he said.

Daw Ngwe, 57, who made it to Kyaukme yesterday from Kalar Wing village, said TNLA soldiers had taken her two-year-old ox and all her chickens. She said she and other villagers had hidden from the TNLA for three days in the jungle.

“I was so afraid of that bad war experience which I have never had in my life before,” she said.

U Eik Hla, who is 50, said he fled from his ethnic Palaung village because he was afraid of being forcibly conscripted by the TNLA. He plans to go to China.

“They were demanding 30 people from our village to enter their army to serve as necessary. All of the young men left the village to hide,” he said.