Kachin Rebel Posts Lost as Fighting Rages along Frontline

Steve Tickner The Irrawaddy

LAIZA, KACHIN STATE—Three Kachin rebel posts fell to Burmese government troops on Friday after a week of continuous government attacks that combined ground forces, artillery fire and airstrikes, Kachin rebels along the frontline said.

Government soldiers however, failed to take the strategic mountaintop post of Hwkya Bhum, which has been the focus of the recent attacks in the mountainous around Laiza, a town located on the Burma-China border where the rebels have their headquarters.

Three rebel positions were reportedly lost in the Lajayang area: a hilltop named Numrock, Banyan Tree outpost located along the Lagat Tu River and Upper Lajayang village. Following the news, dozens of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers were seen moving calmly towards the frontline on Friday afternoon to reinforce rebel units.

KIA spokesman Colonel Zaw Tawng said on Friday morning that he could not give an accurate account of the casualty numbers that rebels and the government soldiers had sustained, but he added that “fierce fighting” continued for control over the Lajayang area.

Some Laiza residents said fighting was raging close to town on Friday afternoon. According to Joseph Nbwi Naw, a Catholic priest, the KIA and the Burmese army were engaged in battles just 6.5 kilometers from Laiza, in an area called Lawayang. “There are heavy clashes at Lawayang today, since the KIA was driven back,” he said via telephone. “Many people are running from Laiza.”

Days earlier, this reporter visited some of the now lost KIA posts to interview the rebels.

On Thursday, in Upper Lajayang, several dozen Kachin rebels—a mix of young and older men, mostly equipped with old Russian- and Chinese-made weapons—waited patiently for the Burmese army to begin its daily round of attacks.

The once picturesque village lies at the end of a narrow river valley, which has been turned into a frontline post to defend the southern approach to Laiza, about 10 kilometers from the town. Government were said to be positioned less than 400 meters away, in Lower Lajayang village.

At 4:19 pm, the Burmese army could be seen launching a combined aerial, artillery and troop assault on Hwkya Bhum mountaintop. Soon after, Burmese army artillery units began a prolonged barrage on KIA positions at Upper Lajayang.

Rebel soldiers escorted this reporter several hundred meters away from the frontline, but a heavy thumping sound of exploding 105-mm and 120-mm artillery shells could be heard echoing through valley four several hours with a frequency of six hits per minute

At Banyan Tree outpost on Wednesday, KIA soldiers described the difficulties of defending their positions against the Burmese army, which outnumbers the rebels and can make use of heavy artillery and airstrikes.

“Usually, when the Burmese army attacks my post the artillery is used first, then ground forces, and occasionally air support in the form of jet fighters and helicopter strafing,” said Lieutenant Minh Ladin.

When the government escalated the fighting in late December by launching airstrikes, the rebels had initially been taken aback.

“It was difficult during the first fortnight because the KIA was not used to air attacks at first,” he said, adding that aerial bombards had been fierce during Christmas Day, forcing the largely Christian Kachin soldiers to forgo their celebrations.

Lt Minh Ladin said at times the KIA posts were manned by seven or eight soldiers, or occasionally up to 20 soldiers, while the Burmese army usually attacked with around hundred troops, adding that government units also tried to make gains at night.

“Sometimes the Burmese army soldiers use the cover of darkness to creep to within a few hundred meters and then attack at sunrise. These attacks are then followed by strafing and bombing,” he said.

At Numrock, a defense post on a hill overlooking the Lajayang villages, KIA soldiers had resigned themselves to the situation and like in many other places along the frontline the Kachin soldiers were confident and stoic in the face of the sustained government attacks.

“I have been at this post for a month now, and a month ago I became married. This is my honeymoon” said Lieutenant La Aung Kia.

Additional reporting from Chiang Mai, Thailand by Simon Roughneen.