YANGON • At least 19 people were killed yesterday in northern Myanmar when ethnic rebels attacked security force posts in restive Shan state, army and local sources said, the most deadly flare-up in recent years as fighting in the borderlands intensifies.
The conflict in the north of Myanmar has escalated over the past month and the latest attack marks a further setback for civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's stated priority of achieving peace amid a stuttering transition from full military rule.
Rights defenders say clashes in the north near the main border gate with China have ramped up since January as the international community focuses on the Rohingya crisis in the west of the country.
The military stands accused of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the stateless minority in Rakhine.
Yesterday's operation was launched by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), one of several insurgent groups fighting for more autonomy in the north.
Images and video from the skirmishes shared on social media showed armed men fanning out across a residential street while a rebel soldier took cover behind a car. The sound of automatic gunfire filled the air as ambulances picked up the wounded.
"Nineteen (people) were killed in fighting," the Myanmar military source said, adding that two dozen had been wounded.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said in a Facebook post that one police officer and three state-backed militia members had been killed while 15 of the dead were innocent civilians.
He called the operation "terrorism". "The attack to target innocent people is not asking for ethnic rights," he said. "It is just a destructive terrorist attack."
He said the military would pursue the armed group.
TNLA spokesman Mai Aik Kyaw told Agence France-Presse that they attacked joint military and militia posts in the Shan state town of Muse and on a road to Lashio.
"We fight because of heavy fighting in our region and the serious offensive in Kachin state," he said, referring to fresh confrontations in Myanmar's northernmost state between the military and the TNLA-aligned Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
It is unclear if members of the powerful KIA took part in the attacks yesterday.
More than 100,000 displaced people now reside in camps in Kachin and Shan states since a ceasefire between the KIA and the military broke down in 2011, according to the latest United Nations statistics.
Myanmar's military frequently clashes with several groups, which say they are fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic minorities in the area, through which much of Myanmar's foreign trade flows.
Myanmar's patchwork of ethnic groups make up around a third of the population.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS