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29 August 2009
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Fighting in Myanmar forces 30,000 to cross border to China

Fighting between Myanmar's isolated ruling military and rebel ethnic armies in the remote northeast has driven up to 30,000 refugees into China, reported AFP quoting the United Nations.

As thousands fled across its border, China issued a rare admonishment to its southern neighbour and close ally, urging it to resolve the conflict that has broken out in Kokang, a mainly ethnic Chinese region of Myanmar's Shan state.

A battle between the Kokang rebel group and the government's army began on Thursday in violation of a 20-year ceasefire, according to the US Campaign for Burma (USCB), which uses Myanmar's former name.

The mass exodus began after Myanmar's military deployed troops in the region on August 8 and now "only elderly peoples are left at homes", while at least one Myanmar policeman was reportedly killed during the battle, the USCB added.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is liaising with local Chinese authorities on the displaced people's needs, said up to 30,000 crossed into the Chinese border town of Nansan, in southwestern Yunnan province.

"We have been informed that local authorities in Yunnan province have already provided emergency shelter, food and medical care to the refugees," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.

A statement from the Chinese foreign ministry said it "hopes that Myanmar can appropriately solve its relevant internal problems and safeguard the stability of the China-Myanmar border".

"We also urge Myanmar to protect the safety and legal rights of Chinese citizens in Myanmar," said spokeswoman Jiang Yu in the statement, posted on the ministry's website.

China is Myanmar's main source of military hardware and a major consumer of its vast natural resources, despite Western concerns over the military-ruled nation's rights record.

Chinese state media reported Friday that Beijing had increased its number of armed police along the Myanmar border.

The English-language Global Times, citing local officials, said that Myanmar nationals were still crossing the border into Yunnan province, without giving a specific figure.

Another ethnic group, the United Wa State Army, has now reportedly joined the Kokang forces' fight against the Myanmar military, according to Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News.

"People say they have been hearing gunshots and explosions," he told AFP, warning that other groups currently under ceasefire agreements could join in.

"If the Burmese army is returning to a reconciliatory stance it might get better, but if not it might be blown into a full-scale civil war."

He added that the government was trying to create stability ahead of elections scheduled in 2010 but warned: "It will be the opposite."

David Mathieson, a Myanmar analyst at Human Rights Watch, agreed full-scale civil war was "a very real fear."

"This could potentially be the flashpoint that draws in several other groups to the resumption of open conflict," he said.

Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, has signed ceasefires with 17 ethnic armed groups.

The USCB said before the battle that the Kokang forces -- known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army -- had split, with one faction joining the government's troops occupying Laogai, capital of the Kokang region.

The other faction had refused to obey the military's order to place its troops under army control.

Peng Jiasheng, leader of the rebel group, issued a statement via USCB late Thursday on the "urgent need of peaceful and patient discussion between all parties concerned."

Refugees began to flee three weeks ago after Myanmar sent dozens of military police to crack down on a gun-repair factory suspected of being a front for drugs production, sparking fear among locals, Chinese media said.

According to the USCB, the military has since deployed thousands of troops to the region and announced that Peng Jiasheng and his family were fugitives wanted for narcotics production.


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