Six opposition rebels have been killed after days of clashes in Myanmar, an anti-junta defence force made up of civilians said Sunday, as Britain and the United States condemned the military's violence against civilians.
Myanmar has been in uproar since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a February 1 coup, triggering a massive uprising which authorities have sought to quell with lethal force.
Pope Francis on Sunday called for an end to the bloodshed and for people to "keep the faith" in a mass in honour of Myanmar in the Vatican City.
And as security forces deploy live ammunition against civilians, some in the anti-junta movement have set up local militias armed with home-made weapons to protect their towns.
In the western state of Chin, the town of Mindat has emerged as a hotspot for unrest, where some residents have formed the Chinland Defence Force (CDF).
"Six members of our CDF who tried to protect the security of the people in Mindat attacked (junta forces) and sacrificed their lives for the national revolution," said a CDF statement on Sunday.
A spokesman also told AFP that over 10 members have been wounded this week, while five Mindat residents were arrested by the military.
With mobile data blocked across the country, details about the fighting have been slow to come out, and on-the-ground verification is made harder as locals are fearful of retaliation.
The spokesman, who declined to be named, said CDF fighters set fire to several army trucks, destroying them, and ambushed reinforcement troops, while the military has attacked the town with artillery.
By Sunday, the CDF had retreated into the jungle, he said.
"We will not stay any more in the town... but we will come back to attack soon," he said. "We only have home-made guns. This was not enough."
He added that residents remaining in Mindat -- which has been under martial law since Thursday -- were afraid to leave their homes for fear of being targeted by the military.
- Violence 'cannot be justified' -
The US and UK embassies in Myanmar sounded the alarm Saturday on the unrest in Mindat, calling for security forces to cease violence.
"The military's use of weapons of war against civilians, including this week in Mindat, is a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold onto power," the US embassy said in a tweet Saturday.
"Attacks on civilians are illegal and cannot be justified," said the British embassy, referring to reports of violence from Mindat.
"Evidence of atrocities should be sent to the (United Nations Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar) so perpetrators can be held to account," the embassy tweeted, referring to a committee that collects evidence of international crimes.
State-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported Sunday that a military tribunal would be convened to try "perpetrators of terrorist attacks" in Mindat.
Security forces saw multiple attacks which left one man dead, said the newspaper, and an ambush on Friday by "1,000 rioters" killed some soldiers -- though it did not say how many.
- 'Keep the faith' -
At least 796 people have been killed by security forces since the February 1 coup, according to a local monitoring group, while nearly 4,000 people are behind bars.
Despite the threat of violence and arrest, protesters across Myanmar continue to take to the streets daily for democracy -- with some also cheering on Mindat's defence force for their resistance.
Local media showed images of residents in central Monywa city holding a night strike on Saturday, spelling out the words "Hang in there, Mindat" with candles.
On Sunday demonstrators in northern Hpakant marched through the jade-producing district holding signs that said "Stay strong, Mindat! We, Hpakant, are always behind you!"
Pope Francis on Sunday held a special service for Myanmar inside the Vatican's Saint Peter's Basilica, appealing to the faithful not to lose hope.
"In these days when your beloved country of Myanmar is experiencing violence, conflict and repression, let us ask ourselves: what we are being called to keep? In the first place, to keep the faith," the 84-year-old pontiff said.
Francis has spoken up on the Myanmar crisis multiple times since the coup, urging the junta to respect a "democratic coexistence" with the people while calling for the release of political leaders.