Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Fighting in Myanmar Draws Closer to China Border ; Shelling Kills 3 Civilians, Rebel Officer Says, but the Government Voices Doubt

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Fighting in Myanmar Draws Closer to China Border ; Shelling Kills 3 Civilians, Rebel Officer Says, but the Government Voices Doubt

Article excerpt

The conflict between an armed ethnic group and the Myanmar military is escalating, with reports that a shelling killed three people in a border town.

Fighting between an armed ethnic group and the Myanmar military appeared to inch closer to the Chinese border on Monday, with reports that shelling had killed three people in the border town of Laiza.

The military in recent weeks has been pushing toward Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, a rebel group seeking a degree of autonomy from the central government.

Awng Jet, an officer with the Kachin Independence Army, said by telephone that the shelling happened early Monday and killed three civilians, including a Christian missionary and a student. Other rebel sources circulated pictures of three bloodied bodies.

Ye Thut, a deputy information minister for the government, expressed skepticism about the attack on his Facebook page and said it needed to be "confirmed independently."

Fighting between the Kachin rebels and government troops has sharply escalated since last month when Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, admitted using aircraft to fight the rebels. Government troops have appeared to take at least one hilltop position previously held by the rebels, putting them one step closer to Laiza, whose capture appears to be the goal of their intensified campaign.

The breakdown of a longstanding cease-fire between the rebels and the military has been a major setback for the government of President Thein Sein, who is trying to guide Myanmar toward democracy after decades of military rule. The cease-fire, which had lasted 17 years, collapsed in June 2011, three months after Mr. Thein Sein came to power.

The army's decision to pursue the Kachin rebels is risky because the fighting is near China. It also contradicts repeated statements by Mr. Thein Sein that the government is seeking peace with the rebels, as it has with other ethnic groups.

China sent an unspecified number of troops to the border last week to survey what the Chinese state news media called an "unstable area." A photographer in the area Monday said that about 200 members of the Chinese security forces had arrived at the border.

The fighting is taking place in the low-lying, jungle-clad mountains, the ancestral homeland of the Kachin and a terrain that they navigate comfortably. The Myanmar Army, although it has fought battles in that part of the country in the decades after independence, does not know the area as well. Some analysts believe this is why the military has resorted to using aircraft. A helicopter used in the campaign crashed on Friday, killing the two pilots and an officer onboard. Kachin rebels said they had shot down the helicopter, but the government blamed engine failure.

The Chinese military and officials in Yunnan, the southern Chinese province that borders Myanmar, have been closely observing the deteriorating situation along the border, according to the Chinese state news media. …

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