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Aid groups urge ceasefire to allow evacuations in Myanmar

Tens of thousands have already fled Kokang in northeastern Shan state

Aid groups urge ceasefire to allow evacuations in Myanmar

Residents who fled from conflict areas near the Myanmar and Chinese border board a truck to transport them to a refugee camp in Mandalay from their temporary refugee camp at a monastery in Lashio, northern Myanmar on Wednesday (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu)

 

The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have called on Myanmar’s army and ethnic rebels in eastern Myanmar to ensure the safety of aid workers and civilians following a burst of violence that has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

Tens of thousands have already fled the remote and rugged Kokang area of northeastern Shan state over the last 10 days, with at least 30,000 people crossing the border into China.

“I call on all parties to the conflict to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff and remind them of their obligations under International humanitarian law, and to allow humanitarian convoys safe passage out of the conflict area,” Renata Dessallien, the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Local aid groups have officially suspended rescue convoys to and around the flashpoint town of Laukkai, where a series of surprise attacks by ethnic Kokang rebels last week sparked the flare up of violence.

The decision follows an attack on a Myanmar Red Cross-led convoy that wounded two aid workers on Tuesday.

The Myanmar Red Cross Society, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the ICRC urged both sides in the conflict to “guarantee the safety” of aid workers.

“The volunteers and convoy are marked with the protective Red Cross emblem,” Tha Hla Shwe, president of the Myanmar Red Cross, said in a statement on Wednesday. “They should be respected and not be the object of attack.”

Ghost town

An MP for Laukkai said his constituency was a virtual ghost town, with only a few residents left guarding their houses.

"People dare not to come back to the town," said Kyaw Ni Naing, an ethnic Kokang MP for Laukkai told AFP from the capital Naypyidaw.

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"We do not want to see any fighting. I want my region to be in peace as soon as possible," he said, adding the refugees in China are desperate to return, but they "have to wait until the fighting stops".

While the majority of civilians to flee have crossed into southwest China, tens of thousands more are believed to have been displaced on the Myanmar side of the border.

Several thousand have streamed into Lashio, in northern Shan state, where many are seeking sanctuary in monasteries.

Mg Mg Than, head of relief operations at Lashio’s Mansu Shan Buddhist monastery, said civilians were streaming in to the monastery grounds in search of refuge every day. He said he expected 300 additional people to arrive Thursday afternoon.

“Hundreds of people are still trapped in the jungle near Laukkai and the China border,” Mg Mg Than told ucanews.com Thursday.

Other civilians not directly in the conflict zone were still forced to flee because the nearby fighting had prevented them from working.

Hlaing Soe, 27, who arrived in Lashio on Thursday morning along with 14 other people, said it took the group seven hours on foot to reach the town from their home village of Kar Maing.

Hlaing Soe, a day laborer, said he had run out of money because the owner of the sugarcane plantation where he worked had fled.

The father-of-two estimated another 1,000 people remained in the area.

Rebel ambushes

Rebels have continued to carry out sporadic ambushes with "small and heavy weapons" on army convoys and camps but have withdrawn "when counterattacks were launched", state-led newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported Thursday.

"Three Tatmadaw [army] personnel died in action and two civilians," the report said, adding affiliated rebel groups including the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the powerful Kachin Independence Army had also carried out attacks.

Rebels have said they are braced for a major army assault, after Myanmar imposed a state of emergency handing a local military commander sweeping powers.

At Lashio’s hospital, a Red Cross worker wounded on Tuesday described the moment their six-vehicle convoy came under fire while attempting to evacuate civilians.

"We were in the first car when the firing started from our left ... as soon as we heard shooting, I got hit by a bullet," Moe Kyaw Than, 48, said from his hospital bed after having an operation on a bullet wound to the stomach.

"I'm sad this happened while we were evacuating people. They shouldn't have shot at the Red Cross," the father-of-five added. It is unclear who was responsible for the attack.

Experts say the Kokang area is viewed in Myanmar as a culturally distinct outpost, renowned for drug production and cross-border trade with China.

Officials have blamed the Kokang rebel leader Phone Kya Shin for the sudden flaring of violence — after six years of relative calm — and called on Beijing to rein in any local officials who might be helping the group on its side of the border.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein has vowed "not to lose an inch of Myanmar territory" to the rebels.

But the violence has undercut his attempts to secure a nationwide ceasefire to end several festering insurgencies before breakthrough elections are held later this year.

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