Myanmar says more than 130 dead in fighting near China border

NAYPYIDAW (AFP) - Myanmar's army on Saturday said more than 130 people had died in a deepening battle with rebels in the north-east, declaring it would not rest until stability was restored to the border area which tens of thousands have fled.

Fighting raged in the remote Kokang region of Shan state where conflict erupted on Feb 9 with insurgent attacks on soldiers that triggered a military onslaught, prompting at least 30,000 civilians to escape into bordering China.

In the first press conference since clashes began, defence ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo said the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers, and around 72 insurgents.

More than 100 military members have been injured since fighting broke out.

"The fighting is strong... Because of serious fighting, our helicopters are helping," he told reporters in the capital Naypyidaw. "We will not retreat until we get stability."

He did not provide figures on civilian deaths in and around Laukkai town, where the conflict has centred, as efforts to evacuate remaining communities have been hampered by an attack Tuesday on a local Red Cross convoy which wounded two aid workers - leading relief groups to officially suspend rescue missions.

The defence spokesman blamed the convoy attack on the rebels, saying: "Our military only provides protection to civilian convoys... We are going to take action against Kokang rebels' offence."

The ethnically Chinese Kokang rebels or National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), who are fighting for regional autonomy, have denied attacking the convoy.

It is unclear how many people remain trapped in the conflict zone, but while the majority of fleeing civilians appear to have crossed into southwest China tens of thousands more are believed to have been displaced on the Myanmar side of the border.

Since the conflict began, several thousand have passed through a monastery in the town of Lashio, some 140km south of Laukkai, taking refuge as they travel to other parts of the country.

MYANMAR JOURNALISTS ATTACKED

Late Saturday a vehicle ferrying Myanmar national journalists from Laukkai was attacked by unknown assailants, a local government official in the nearby town of Chinshwehal told AFP, leaving the driver and one reporter injured.

They were taken to hospital and are in a stable condition, said the official, without providing any further details.

Local media reports said the attack on Saturday was launched at a Red Cross convoy, but an official from the organisation in Lashio told AFP its vehicles were not involved.

The conflict, the first major unrest in the region since 2009, has renewed doubts over a government attempt to forge a nationwide ceasefire in a country peppered with ethnic insurgencies.

In another ominous sign for peace, the Kokang have been joined by other nearby rebel groups, including the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the powerful Kachin Independence Army.

No one from the rebel groups could be reached for comment on Saturday.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has put the ceasefire agreement at the heart of its reforms as the nation prepares for a general election later this year.

But the fighting has raised fears those efforts are unravelling.

Myanmar has declared a state of emergency in the region in response to the conflict, which has also sparked alarm in Beijing.

China says it has stepped up border controls and called on all parties to prevent a further escalation of fighting.