Fighting has again flared between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), forcing about 1,000 people to flee their homes as students and teachers were caught in the crossfire in northern Burma’s Hpakant Township.
The fighting took place on Thursday near Aung Bar Lay and Tagaungs village in Hpakant, a jade-rich region in Kachin State about 50 miles northwest of Myitkyina, the state capital. Gunfire began at 6 a.m., forcing local villagers including about 200 students and some 20 schoolteachers to flee, with many currently in hiding at local churches.
Casualties were not immediately reported.
The KIA’s Battalion 6 and Burma Army troops from Light Infantry Division 22 were the units involved in the fighting, according to Kachin rebel sources.
Local residents said the fighting was intense and up to 1,000 Burmese troops have reportedly been dispatched to the conflict zone to provide support.
“Fighting broke out early this morning and it is ongoing,” Du Hka, a spokesperson of the Technical Advisory Team for the KIAs political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), told The Irrawaddy by telephone on Thursday. “Heavy weapons and artillery shells were fired nonstop. Fighting is escalating as Burmese troops are entering our territories.”
A local resident told The Irrawaddy: “We are very afraid and villagers in Aung Bar Lay are fleeing to escape. We tried to flee to Hpakant [town], but we were stranded in the middle of the road as the fighting escalated. Now, we are hiding in churches in the village.”
According to local sources, about 1,000 residents of more than 400 households were affected by the fighting and have sought refuge at local churches.
“We keep hearing gunfire and bomb blasts through 1 p.m. Villagers from Tagaung village are caught in crossfire. Religious and relief groups are trying to rescue them, but we can’t travel as the fighting is continuing,” said another local resident in the town of Hpakant.
The Burma Army has set up checkpoints along the road that links Hpakant to Myitkyina and is not allowing through traffic, saying artillery shells landing on and around the road could hit travelers.
The fighting between the Burma Army and the KIA broke out amid reports of the KIA’s detention of Kaman Du Naw, a Kachin State transportation minister, along with three Burmese police officers. They were reportedly arrested on Wednesday while observing construction of a road that links Mong Kaung, Kaming and Hpakant. The minister was later released but the three police officers are still believed to be in KIA custody.
The renewed hostilities also come just days after the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, visited Myitkyina, where he met with civil society groups, political leaders and international aid organizations.
Ethnic leaders and government peace negotiators are scrambling to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Feb. 12, a plan that has been viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm and credulity by Burma’s ethnic armed groups.
The KIA is one of two major ethnic armed groups that have not signed a bilateral ceasefire with the government. The two sides last came to blows on Nov. 19, when the Burma Army shelled a rebel training academy outside of Myitkyina, killing 22 cadets.
“We have to wait and see how much it [the latest fighting] will affect trust-building [with the KIA]. But we hope the peace process will keep moving,” said Hla Maung Shwe, a senior advisor at the Myanmar Peace Center, a government-affiliated organization that helps to coordinate Burma’s peace negotiations.
The Irrawaddy reporter San Yamin Aung contributed to this article.