Troops attack rebels in strategic area near China border

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BANGKOK — Government troops in Myanmar have attacked one of the country’s powerful northern militias with artillery, trying to force rebel fighters from a strategic region where China is building major hydropower plants.

The fighting has killed at least four people and forced 2,000 more to flee since it started Thursday, according to the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

The violence is some of the most serious in Myanmar since its military junta in March handed power to a civilian government critics say is simply a proxy for continued military rule.

The new government has said it wants to improve ties with ethnic minorities that have waged rebellions along the border, but the latest fighting underscores the deep tension that remains.

The rebels involved in the most recent clashes belong to the Kachin, one of Myanmar’s sizable ethnic minorities. Their decades of struggles for more autonomy have been met routinely by military suppression.

Kachin military commander Gwan Maw told U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia on Monday that the fighting in northern Myanmar’s Momauk region, near the Chinese border, could spread and possibly escalate into civil war if the government refused to negotiate an end to it with the Kachin Independence Organization.

Although the fighting could worsen, it is unlikely to engulf the repressive nation.

The 8,000-strong Kachin militia reached a peace deal with the country’s former ruling junta in 1994, but the truce broke down last year after the militia rejected a call by the government to become border guards under army leadership.

The junta made the appeal ahead of last November’s elections, Myanmar’s first in 20 years, which introduced the nominally civilian government now in power.

The Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based lobbying group that uses Myanmar’s former name in its title, said hundreds of Myanmar government troops deployed to the northern region to force out Kachin forces after they refused to abandon a strategic base.

The base is located near a major hydropower project that is being built by China’s state-owned China Datang Corp., the group said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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