Myanmar rebels said Saturday that the national army has launched new airstrikes following the government's rare admission that dozens of its soldiers have died in a dramatic resurgence of conflict in a remote region bordering China.
The fighting and heavy casualties are a setback for government efforts to forge a nationwide cease-fire and end a patchwork of insurgencies amid ethnic minority groups. Such uprisings have taken hold in Myanmar, which is also called Burma, since shortly after its independence in 1948.
The latest unrest, which erupted on Feb. 9 in Shan State’s Kokang area after six years of relative calm, continued Friday with severe clashes between the Myanmar army and fighters from several ethnic groups, according to Captain Tar Parn La, a spokesman for the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
"There were gunships, two jets and two helicopters yesterday," he told Agence France-Presse news agency, adding that he had not yet received reports of fighting on Saturday.
Myanmar state media on Friday reported that ethnic minority fighters armed with heavy weapons had attempted to capture the Kokang area's main city earlier in the week, in a series of assaults that have left at least 50 soldiers dead and dozens more wounded.
Myanmar's information minister Ye Htut has blamed local Kokang rebel leader Phone Kya Shin for the fighting, and has called on Beijing to reign in any local officials who might be helping the group on their side of the border.
An unknown number of people have fled the Kokang unrest, with most crossing the border into China, while some have made their way to the northern Shan city of Lashio, Tar Parn La said.
He said the Kokang rebels have been joined by the TNLA and the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which have both continued to battle the government's forces in other areas of Shan and nearby Kachin states.
But he said he was unaware of involvement by China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday that China supports efforts to resolve the situation peacefully so that refugees can return to Myanmar as soon as possible.
"We hope that all sides in Myanmar can work hard with China to quieten down the situation and return the border as soon as possible to peace and tranquility, so these border people can go home," Hua said at a daily news briefing.
It is unclear what provoked the latest round of violence, which coincided with Myanmar's celebrations of its symbolic Union Day on Thursday.
The government, the military and a handful of ethnic armed groups signed a commitment to continue talks, laying out an aim to build a union with "federal principles.” However, a long-hoped-for nationwide ceasefire deal remains elusive.
Fighting in resource-rich Kachin, which erupted in 2011 when a 17-year cease-fire crumbled, is viewed as a significant barrier to reaching an agreement. It has seen some 100,000 people forced into displacement camps.