Dozens killed in Myanmar border battle

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Chris Johnson,BANGKOK, Reuters

Intense fighting in eastern Myanmar between government troops and ethnic guerrillas has killed dozens and threatens to spill over into neighboring Thailand, military sources said on Thursday.

The Myanmar army and its allies in the United Wa State Army have been attacking positions held by a rival ethnic group, the Shan State Army (SSA), opposite Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, in a battle for territory and for control of the drugs trade.

Thai officials said more than a dozen shells fired by one or both sides had landed inside Thailand since Tuesday and many Shan army troops had retreated across the border for medical treatment.

They said dozens of Myanmar and Wa fighters died in the assaults on Shan positions. Myanmar had sought without success Thai permission to cross the border to hit the Shan from behind.

“We are on full alert for any incursion into Thailand and we are reinforcing positions along the border that may be at risk,” Thai Defense Ministry spokesman Surapan Poomkaew told Reuters.

An Shan source told Reuters his forces had killed about 150 Myanmar and Wa soldiers and wounded many others in heavy fighting along the border since May 20. He declined to give an estimate for the Shan’s casualties.

Myanmar officials were unavailable for immediate comment.

Tensions have flared between Thailand and Myanmar, with Myanmar accusing Thailand of backing the Shan and another ethnic army, the Karen National Union (KNU), a charge Bangkok denies.

Myanmar has sealed major border crossings and this week warned Thailand not to get involved in its assault on the Shan.

Thailand’s government has tried to defuse the mounting tension and has said Myanmar troops are not a threat as they are fighting rebel groups and not launching a strike into Thai soil.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he did not think the situation on the border was a serious problem for Thailand, saying Myanmar’s action against the Shan army was an internal affair.

“Myanmar has informed us about the crackdown and that it will try very hard to prevent shells from landing inside Thailand,” he told reporters. “We must not interfere.”

“We will do our best to restore the good relationship.”

Tensions rose this week between the two historical enemies with newspapers on both sides fanning the flames.

Emotions boiled in Thailand on Tuesday when masked gunmen, dressed like rebels from the Karen National Union, opened fire with M-16s on a Thai school bus near the Myanmar border, an attack which resulted in the death of three school children.

Thai media speculated that Myanmar troops could have been behind the attack ,but Thaksin said he did not think Myanmar soldiers or Karen rebels were to blame.

Thailand has said it wants high-level talks with Myanmar to calm tensions, but so far has received no reply.

Thailand and Myanmar have been at odds in recent years over the flow of illegal narcotics from factories inside Myanmar.

Thailand accuses the Wa army of being the biggest trafficker in the region and says it is responsible for most of the millions of methamphetamine stimulant pills that enter Thailand. Myanmar denies the charge and accuses the SSA of being drugs runners.

Thai troops massed on the Myanmar border last month in what was billed as a training exercise, but which military sources said was preparation for a strike on Wei Hsueh-Kang, a notorious drug baron who commands a faction of the Wa army.

Thailand withdrew the troops after protests from Myanmar but Shan rebels seized the chance to attack Myanmar troops and their Wa allies in the area, capturing four army camps.

Myanmar says Thai soldiers helped the Shan assault. Thailand denies this but says it returned fire across the border when stray artillery shells from Myanmar landed on Thai soil.