Friday, January 16, 2009

Next battle against Karen rebels soon

By Daniel Pedersen

Maesot (Mizzima) - Soldiers of the Karen National Liberation Army's Special Battalion 103 are reinforcing troops of the KNLA's Sixth Brigade's 201st Battalion just south of Thailand's border town of Mae Sot.

The Special Battalion 103 in the past week has lost its base camp and for the past seven days has been moving constantly, deflecting their enemies - Burmese Army soldiers - with terrestrial mines and directional Claymore mines.

The vicious battle for the region surrounding Thailand's Phop Phra district has see-sawed back and forth across Thailand's northern border with Burma since June 30 last year.

Last week government troops overran - then destroyed - 103's base camp, a significant settlement equipped with solar power, fish holding tanks, a huge granary and a medical clinic that serviced 800 people living in two nearby villages.

The KNLA has lost and won back the base repeatedly since last year. Now there is nothing to win back.

The Karen National Union is the one of some significant groups yet to sign a ceasefire deal with the junta and the KNLA is its armed wing.

Colonel Nerdah Mya, a commander said his base camp was lost and his men were redeploying further north to defend 201st's Wah Lay Kee base camp.

That camp has stood since 1998 and was briefly overrun in early July last year, but won back after three days of heavy fighting.

In the last week's fighting SPDC troops suffered significant casualties from landmines and the corridors of Thailand's Mae Sot General Hospital were for a few days crammed with injured Burmese soldiers perched on stainless steel trolleys.

The battle is on over a region opposite Thailand's Umphang region, a tourist spot for its spectacular mountain scenery.

On Thursday, SPDC troops were positioning themselves around Wah Lay Kee camp for an all-out offensive and followed lobbing a few shells at the military encampment, but missed.

They have managed to occupy some high ground around the camp and are lugging 81mm mortars with them.

The KNLA has a Browning 0.5 inch machine gun, a formidable weapon usually mounted on top of armoured vehicles.

The KNLA desperately wants to hold the camp not only because it represents its last significant regional outpost, equipped with training halls and a medical clinic, but also because a military cemetery is maintained there.

The rebel claims that SPDC wants "full economic control", to wrest control of the region for its significant deposits of gold, tin, zinc and wolfram (from which antimony is refined).

Taiwanese and Thai mining companies are waiting in the wings, ready to strike a deal with whichever side can guarantee security for their capital investment.

For the KNLA, whose footprint in the region has always been somewhat precarious, this latest outbreak of fighting represents the most sustained series of attacks around Phop Phra for years.

Aid workers report that even Thai farmers have given up trying to harvest the hundreds of hectares of corn standing in field on both sides of the border and are heading for Karen refugee camps. At least there they will probably get a meal.

The Thai Army has reinforced troops on the border in the region and is keeping a close eye on comings and goings.

This weekend will be a critical time for the KNLA's future in the area.

Heavy fighting now looks inescapable barring a withdrawal, and that would mean the assured destruction of Wah Lay Kee.

On Monday before dawn a British photographer was escorted along jungle trails hidden underneath a blanket to safety in Thailand.

On Wednesday a foreign volunteer was asked to cut short a training programme and depart before hostilities broke out.

The trolleys look set to be wheeled into the corridors of Mae Sot General Hospital again this weekend.

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