NAYPYIDAW - Myanmar's army Saturday said more than 130 people had died in a deepening battle with rebels in the northeast, declaring it would not rest until stability was restored to the border area which tens of thousands have fled.

Fighting raged in the remote Kokang region of Shan state where conflict erupted on February 9 when insurgent attacks on soldiers triggered a military onslaught, prompting at least 30,000 civilians to escape into bordering China. In the first press conference since clashes began, defence ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo said the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers and around 72 insurgents.

‘The fighting is strong. Because of serious fighting, our helicopters are helping,’ he told reporters in the capital Naypyidaw. ‘We will not retreat until we get stability.’ He did not provide figures on civilian deaths in and around Laukkai town, where the conflict has centred, as efforts to evacuate communities remain hampered by an attack Tuesday on a local Red Cross convoy which wounded two aid workers.

The spokesman blamed the attack on the rebels: ‘Our military only provides protection to civilian convoys. We are going to take action against Kokang rebels' offence.’

Moreover, Myanmar's army intensified an offensive to flush out rebels from areas around a flashpoint town on the northeastern border with China, state media said, after 11 days of fighting displaced tens of thousands of people. The conflict, which flared on February 9 when ethnic Kokang rebels killed nearly 50 soldiers during a series of attacks on Laukkai town, has seen at least 30,000 people flee into China, prompting Beijing to call for an end to the clashes.  The United States Embassy in Yangon condemned the attack as ‘unacceptable’. Myanmar has blamed Kokang rebel leader Phone Kya Shin for the upsurge of violence.