YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — In its first public comments on a week of fighting in northeast Myanmar, the government said Saturday that ethnic Kachin rebels fired first and the army had to act to protect a major Chinese-built hydroelectric power project.
The skirmishes were some of the fiercest in nearly two decades between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army. They erupted June 9, displacing at least 10,000 people over the course of about one week. The rebels have blamed the government for launching an offensive after militia fighters rejected a call to leave the strategic region.
The government says it did call on rebels to leave, but accused them of firing first after threatening Chinese technicians and detaining two army officers, according to a report Saturday in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
The 8,000-strong Kachin militia is one of several minority ethnic rebel armies in Myanmar who say they are fighting for greater autonomy.
The government paper said Myanmar's military ordered rebels to withdraw from a camp near the Tarpein hydropower project, a joint venture between Myanmar's Electric Power Ministry and China.
The government said that during the fighting, militia fighters blew up power pylons that fed the project, as well as 20 bridges. The violence forced 215 Chinese employees to flee home across the border, the report said.
Military columns "had to inevitably attack the KIA just to rescue their officers ... who were detained without any reason and to protect the high-cost Tarpein hydropower project," the report said.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based lobbying group, said last week the militias had returned six detained army soldiers during a lull in fighting. It was not immediately clear if the two officers reported detained by the government were among them.
Myanmar's central government has tenuous control of many parts of the country where minority groups are strongest. Many of those groups maintain their own militias. The government has reached cease-fire agreements with 17 rebel militias since 1989 and most have been allowed to keep their weapons and maintain some autonomy over their areas.
The 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.