BANGKOK – More than 10,000 people in northern Myanmar have fled fighting between government troops and an ethnic minority group's militia, and are living in temporary camps near the Chinese border as refugees, members of the minority group said Thursday.
The website of the Kachin News Group, associated with Kachin anti-government exiles, quoted one of the group's leaders saying that refugees have fled territory under government control.
The report cited Kachin Independence Organization civil administration officer Salang Kaba Doi Pyi Sa saying that China had closed the border to refugees, but in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei denied the allegation.
"Since the outbreak of the conflict, some of the people from Myanmar crossed the border and went to China to find their relatives and friends," Hong said. "China has provided necessary assistance in accordance with common practice."
Reports from the remote area cannot be independently confirmed.
The fighting began June 9 when government troops allegedly shelled a Kachin base in a bid to force the rebel fighters from a strategic region where China is constructing major hydropower plants.
The total number of casualties so far remains unclear. Col. James Lum Dau, a Kachin spokesman in Thailand, said Thursday that 16 people on the government side had been killed, and 150 wounded. He said he was unable to give the number of Kachin casualties.
Myanmar's state-controlled media have not reported the fighting.
Myanmar's central government has tenuous control of many parts of the country where minority groups — many of which maintain their own militias — are strongest. It has reached cease-fire agreements with 17 ethnic minority rebel militias since 1989 and most have been allowed to keep their weapons and maintain some autonomy over their areas.
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 for them 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.
Reached by phone, Chinese local officials said refugees who had fled into China required little government assistance, as they found food and shelter with their friends and relatives, and that many have returned to Myanmar.
"As the situation gradually eases, the Myanmar border residents have started to go back to the Myanmar side," said Sun Konglong, vice general-secretary of the government of Dehong, a border prefecture in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
Another official, Shen Yu, from the Dehong emergency affairs office, said the refugees started arriving June 8 and numbered up to 300. Shen said more than half of them have already returned to Myanmar.
Associated Press writer Gillian Wong and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.