YANGON - Sixteen Myanmar soldiers died in a major offensive to flush rebels from a strategic hill-top in the northeastern region bordering China, state media said Thursday, as fighting with ethnic insurgents nears its tenth week.
Scores of soldiers and ethnic Kokang rebels have died since conflict erupted in the remote region of Shan state on February 9, while tens of thousands of people have fled across the frontier into China.
Myanmar air strikes have since drifted into Chinese territory, killing several civilians and prompting a rebuke from Beijing which scrambled its fighter jets.
The conflict has also overshadowed a wider bid to secure a nationwide ceasefire with a host of other rebel groups - excluding the Kokang - as the country edges towards breakthrough elections after decades of junta rule. “Sixteen soldiers and officers from the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) gave their lives for the country and another 110 soldiers and officers were wounded,” a report Thursday in state-run Burmese-language newspaper The Mirror said.
The troops were taking part in a 10-day operation which ended Wednesday, reclaiming a key hilltop and destroying dozens of rebel bunkers, it said.
The newspaper added that two dead bodies of Kokang rebels were found, alongside small and heavy weapons. Rebel spokesmen could not be immediately contacted Thursday for comment.
The Kokang region has been blanketed by a state of emergency imposed in the days after the fighting broke out.
Myanmar government-run media intially carried detailed daily updates of the conflict against the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the main insurgent group of the Chinese-speaking Kokang.
But information has dried up in recent weeks as the fighting continues.
There are also no clear figures for the number of civilians killed or wounded in the remote, rugged area, while humanitarian access has been severely hampered by several attacks on relief convoys.
Last month Myanmar’s president Thein Sein hailed a historic draft peace deal with a host of rebel groups to end decades of civil war.
Although the Kokang are not directly involved in peace talks, the ongoing fighting has drawn condemnation from the coalition of rebel groups at the negotiating table, who are yet to formally ratify the draft of the ceasefire deal.
Another ethnic armed group, the Shan State-based Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) is also supporting the Kokang rebels, who were driven out of Myanmar by the army in 2009 before suddenly returning in February.