Myanmar's military strikes Kachin rebel stronghold, leaving three dead
Three dead and another six wounded as government forces launch attack on Kachin stronghold near border with China
Kachin rebels said yesterday three civilians were killed and six wounded in the first attack by Myanmese government forces on their northern stronghold, as fighting escalates in the country's last active civil war.
Three shells landed early yesterday in "the heart of Laiza" town, the Kachin Independence Army's base near the Chinese border, said Colonel James Lum Dau, spokesman for the KIA's political wing.
"This is the first time they have directly bombarded Laiza," he said, adding that the dead included a 15-year-old boy and a 76-year-old man.
A government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Witnesses in Laiza confirmed that the town had been directly hit with artillery.
"I have seen two shells fall in the city, killing three civilian residents," Kachin aid worker La Rip said. "People are scared.
"At the moment it has stopped, but I'm afraid the shelling will continue. They are not targeting only military targets."
La Rip, of the Relief Action Network for internally displaced persons and refugees, said people from the affected areas were taking shelter close to the border.
Around 20,000 residents and 15,000 displaced people are thought to be in Laiza, he said, adding that there was "nowhere to go" except China, which in August pushed several thousand refugees back into Myanmar.
An increase in fighting between Myanmar's military and the KIA in recent weeks has overshadowed the Southeast Asian nation's wider political reforms and cast doubt on a peace process seen as key to the country's emergence from decades of military rule.
The United States and United Nations have condemned the army's use of air strikes in the state since last month.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in Kachin since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down. The total number of casualties in the conflict is unknown.
Myanmar's army and the rebels have traded disparate claims over a helicopter crash last week that killed three military personnel. State media put the incident down to engine failure, rebutting KIA claims to have shot down the aircraft.
The intensification of the unrest in recent weeks is likely to further frustrate efforts to secure a peace deal in the region, observers have warned.
Myanmar has struck tentative ceasefires with most of the other major ethnic rebel groups, but several rounds of negotiations with the Kachin have shown little tangible progress.
The rebels accuse the government of pushing for a dialogue based only on a ceasefire and troop withdrawals, and not addressing long-standing demands for greater political rights.
Myanmese President Thein Sein defended the military's response to the Kachin rebellion in comments reported in state media on Friday, saying the Tatmadaw - Myanmar's army - had done everything possible "to make positive contributions to the peace process".
Some experts have cast doubt over the level of control that Thein Sein, a former general, now exerts over army units in Kachin, after his order to end military offensives in December 2011 was apparently ignored.