As war escalates in Burma’s northernmost state, ethnic rebels fighting for their basic rights have killed and injured more than 60 government soldiers in response to an attack on their headquarters, an allied armed group claimed on Monday.
The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed group fighting alongside ethnic rebels in northern Kachin State, said government forces suffered the casualties on Friday after launching an offensive in Lajayang region, near the rebels’ headquarters in the town of Laiza, where about 70,000 displaced civilians are staying in refugee camps.
In a one-day battle about 10 km from Laiza, rebel forces killed and injured more than 60 government soldiers and captured many of their weapons, ABSDF soldier Min Htay told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Speaking from the conflict zone, Min Htay said rebel forces also captured seven government soldiers, including two corporals, during the battle.
The fighting represents an escalation of the 18-month conflict, which began after a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June last year.
According to ABSDF, the Burma Army launched its offensive on KIA headquarters with about 400 foot soldiers and Mi-24 helicopter gunships.
“The fighting started at about 6 am and lasted until 6:30 in the evening,” said Hla Seng of the ABSDF. “They [government troops] came on foot. They used helicopters gunships and fired artillery.”
Houses in some abandoned villages were destroyed by rocket fire during the government offensive, according to ABSDF troops on the frontlines. Residents from the villages had already left with their livestock to seek refuge, including in camps near Laiza.
The government says its soldiers only used helicopters to carry food and military supplies.
“[They] didn’t use helicopters to shoot the KIA,” Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, told The Irrawaddy. “It’s not their nature to use helicopter gunships in a civil war.”
Zaw Htay said he learned from media reports that government soldiers had suffered high causalities in the offensive last week.
He said he did not want either side to suffer, urging bilateral dialogue between the government’s peace team and the KIA.
Leaders of the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have met with the government’s peace team several times, but without tangible results.
“We need to build trust,” Zaw Htay said. “There will be disagreements, but it’s necessary to negotiate.”
However, Min Htay of the ABSDF was not hopeful about prospects for a quick peace agreement, saying he believed the government would continue launching more offensives against KIA headquarters.
ABSDF is an armed group that was formed by Burmese student activists after nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988. It has been fighting alongside ethnic rebels in Kachin State for months.
About 100,000 civilians have fled their homes during the 18 months of fighting between the government’s army and KIA troops in northern Burma, staying in refugee camps in KIA-controlled areas on the Sino-Burmese border as well as government-controlled areas.
Human rights violations, including rape by Burmese soldiers, have been reported throughout the war.
The Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief group operating in Kachin State and other ethnic areas, reported that government soldiers raped a 58-year-old woman in Pangwa area, on the border with China, in July. She was married and the mother of one child.
The relief group said Burmese soldiers also raped a 39-year-old widowed mother of 12.