The United Nations called for “urgent measures to spare civilians” in Myanmar’s conflict-wracked northwest on Sunday, saying fighting has intensified between the army and insurgents.

The military has been battling the Arakan Army (AA) — a rebel group seeking more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists — in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states since January last year.

Scores of civilians have been killed in the area and tens of thousands displaced. The two sides have traded allegations of abuse.

Under lockdown and with an internet blackout across much of the conflict zone, reporting from the area is difficult to verify.

The UN expressed concern Sunday over “reports of intensified fighting” in northwest Rakhine state’s Rathedaung township.

The area is home to more than 10,000 civilians, and local sources report they are either fleeing or are trapped by the ongoing conflict, the UN said.

Urging both parties to “take urgent measures to spare civilians”, the UN also called for them to respect international humanitarian law as well as reiterating the need for a ceasefire with the ongoing global pandemic.

The statement comes after local authorities issued a call last week to residents of more than 40 villages to evacuate ahead of “clearance operations”.

The term was used in 2017 before the army waged a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state against the Rohingya Muslim population.

More than 750,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, carrying accounts of violence that has led to charges of genocide against Myanmar at the UN’s top court.

But Border Affairs Minister Colonel Min Than told AFP Sunday the order was “revoked” because the army was only targeting five villages, including Kyauk Tan, to flush out AA insurgents.

“It’s not a ‘clearance operation’, but a ‘military operation,’” Min Than said.

The wording changes little for local residents however.

Khaing Kyaw of Kyauk Tan village said his family had to flee their homes.

“Artillery shells are fired from the town and the creeks to our village,” he told AFP.

“We are all running and having difficulties with food.”

AFP