YANGON (AFP) - Fighting between the military and ethnic minority rebels in northern Myanmar has left at least 22 people dead this month, the army said on Sunday, dimming hopes of a nationwide peace deal.
Bloodshed in the state of Kachin, the scene of the last major active civil war in the former junta-ruled country, has uprooted tens of thousands of people and tempered optimism about sweeping political reforms.
Eight government soldiers, including one officer, have been killed in clashes this month, according to a military statement carried by the army-owned Myawaddy newspaper.
The military also retrieved the bodies of 14 Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighters along with weapons, it added.
There was no immediate comment from the KIA, one of the country's largest rebel armies.
Kachin sources said thousands of villagers were taking refuge along the border with China.
According to the UN, about 100,000 people have been displaced in remote, resource-rich area since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the rebels broke down in June 2011.
The total death toll from the conflict is unknown.
The military said fighting flared up earlier this month after one of its officers was killed in an ambush by the KIA, prompting it to deploy troops to clear areas along supply lines.
President Thein Sein's reformist government has struck a series of tentative peace deals with major rebel groups in the country, which has been wracked by civil conflict since independence from Britain in 1948.
After numerous rounds of talks, the government and Kachin rebels signed a seven-point plan in May 2013 aimed at ending hostilities.
At the time the agreement was hailed as a breakthrough by the government, which is now seeking to ink a nationwide ceasefire with a coalition of rebel groups to burnish its reform credentials as it woos foreign donors and investors.
Another round of peace talks is scheduled for early May although it could be delayed because of the fresh unrest, according to a person close to the talks who did not want to be named.
Since decades of outright military rule ended three years ago, former general Thein Sein has won international praise by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.
But optimism has been marred by the Kachin conflict, several outbreaks of deadly Buddhist-Muslim strife around the country and concerns about continued repressive laws.