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YANGON (Reuters) - Seven Myanmar soldiers on trial for murder have admitted their involvement in the killing of five villagers in northern Shan State, according to witnesses at an unprecedented court martial.
In a highly unusual move, the army invited 15 residents from the remote village of Mong Yaw, where the killings took place, to witness the court martial at a nearby military base on Tuesday. Four of them have described the proceedings to Reuters.
"The judge read the murder case reports and asked for confessions from the soldiers, who admitted they were responsible," said Sai Kaung Kham, a Mong Yaw villager who has been helping the families attending the military trial.
Military officials did not respond to requests for comment, and it was not possible to independently verify the testimony at the closed proceedings in the northern city of Lashio.
In July, in a rare public admission of wrongdoing by the still-powerful military, intelligence chief Mya Tun Oo told reporters the army was responsible for killing five men from Mong Yaw and said the culprits would be prosecuted.
Witnesses had previously told Reuters that soldiers rounded up dozens of men from the village, in an area riven by a long-running ethnic insurgency, on June 25 and led five away. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave a few days later.
Both the news conference by one of the country's most senior generals and the invitation to villagers to attend the military trial were unprecedented. The army has occasionally acknowledged troops have been at fault in previous incidents, but has usually done so in vaguely worded official statements.
The response this time suggests a heightened sensitivity about the military's image as it tries to present itself as a responsible partner in Myanmar's democratic transition and seeks closer ties with Western counterparts.
Military representatives contacted in the capital Naypyitaw and at the Northeast Command in Lashio did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the trial.
Myanmar's armed forces have often been accused by human rights groups of abuses during decades of conflict with ethnic armed groups in the country's lawless border zones, but campaigners such as Amnesty International say it is extremely rare for soldiers to be held to account.
Mong Yaw lies in a distant corner of Shan State, where thousands of people have been displaced by decades of fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents.
Three officers and three lower-ranking soldiers have admitted murdering the villagers, according to the witnesses present at the court martial.
The seventh serviceman, the highest-ranking of those on trial, said he did not order the soldiers to "kill" the villagers, but to "clear them out".
The soldiers said they had arrested and interrogated five men and found two of them were related to a local ethnic armed group. They said they asked their superiors for further instructions, villager Sai Kaung Kham said.
The low-ranking soldiers then proceeded to kill the villagers, acting on orders, the witnesses at the trial said.
"They were worried that if they let the three villagers go back, they would tell others they had been tortured," the soldiers told the court martial, according to Sai Kaung Kham.
Before killing them, the soldiers dressed some of the men in camouflage trousers, Sai Kaung Kham and other witnesses said.
It was not clear when the court martial would end.
Aye Lu, the wife of Aik Sai who was one of the men killed, said that at the court martial one of the soldiers admitted knifing her husband to death.
"I want to see those who killed my husband sent to jail," she said.
Editing by Alex Richardson