China denies hundreds of Chinese nationals trapped in Myanmar

YANGON (REUTERS) - More than 100 Chinese citizens trapped by fighting between government troops and insurgents in northern Myanmar, have been arrested and are being held by the Myanmar government, a Chinese embassy spokesman in Yangon said on Tuesday.

Pan Xuesong told Reuters that representatives from the embassy had arrived in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina on Monday to meet with more than 100 Chinese nationals who were being held in a prison there.

The state-backed Global Times reported on Monday that Chinese nationals were among 2,000 civilians trapped in the northern state of Kachin, which borders southern China, where the Myanmar military has been battling the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for years.

Pan said said that the local government claimed the Chinese nationals had entered Myanmar illegally, but that the arrested workers had denied this. "The embassy is now working for their release," he said.

The Chinese nationals included miners, jade traders and merchants.

Myanmar government officials could not be reached for comment.

Earlier on Tuesday, China's foreign ministry denied a report that hundreds of Chinese citizens had been trapped in the fighting. "According to a preliminary investigation by our joint investigative group in our consulate in Myanmar, it is not true that there are a large number of Chinese citizens trapped in the crossfire zone," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

Hua said China was willing to "promote peace talks to play a constructive role" in northern Myanmar and called for "an early realisation of lasting peace and stability".

The risk of fighting spreading in the heavily militarised border region is a worry for China, which has built two oil and gas pipelines through its Southeast Asian neighbour to improve energy security.

Much of Myanmar's jade is smuggled over the border into China. An open-pit mine in the Kachin town of Hpakant is the largest source of Myanmar jade.

In Myanmar, peace talks between rebel groups and the semi-civilian government that took over in 2011 after nearly 50 years of military rule ended last September without agreement.

The KIA took up arms in 1961 and is the second-largest of about 20 ethnic armed groups in Myanmar.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.