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Myanmar’s Kachin rebels lose ground near headquarters

YANGON, Myanmar – A key outpost protecting the headquarters of ethnic Kachin rebels in northern Myanmar has fallen to government troops, a spokesman for the guerrilla group said Sunday.

The Kachin Independence Army spokesman said the hillside outpost at Hka Ya Bhum, near the guerrilla group’s headquarters in the town of Laiza, was overrun Saturday afternoon.

“The army stormed the post using about 3,000 soldiers and air and artillery assaults,” said the spokesman, who asked to be identified only as Joseph.

He said in a telephone interview that heavy attacks on the post began last week, despite a cease-fire unilaterally declared by the government. Over the past few weeks, the government has pushed toward Laiza, although it insists that it has no intention of taking the town.

“The government did not live up to their own promises and they continue their attacks even today. I think their target is to totally occupy our Laiza headquarters,” he said. No casualty figures were available, he said.

The Kachin, like Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities, have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. They are the only major ethnic rebel group that has not reached a truce with President Thein Sein’s administration.

The military has been actively engaging the Kachin in combat for 1 1/2 years, but fighting escalated when the government began using fighter planes and helicopter gunships in its attacks starting on Christmas Day. It said it was acting in self-defense because Kachin attacks kept it from supplying its forward bases, but the Kachin say they were seeking to stop the army from attacking their Laiza headquarters, near the border with China.

The fighting has drawn concern from the United States, China and the United Nations.

On Saturday, Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry criticized a recent statement by the United States about the violence.

In comments published in the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper, the ministry said it rejected the statement issued Thursday by the U.S. Embassy that expressed “deep concern” over the ongoing violence because it failed to mention anything about “terrorist actions and atrocities committed by the KIA” and talked only about army actions.

Relations between the two countries remain uneasy despite Myanmar’s shift from an ostracized military state to a fledging democracy, although Washington has relaxed most sanctions it imposed on the previous army regime because of its repressive policies.