Saturday, June 13, 2009

Burmese and DKBA Troops Block Civilians Fleeing Conflict

The Irrawaddy News

Karen villagers trying to reach the relative safety of Thailand after weeks of heavy fighting in Karen State are trapped and hiding in the jungle, as Burmese junta troops and their allies try to prevent them from joining the four thousand civilians who have already crossed the border.

Recent fighting in southern Karen State has sent a new wave of refugees fleeing for the relative safety of the Thai-Burmese border. (Photo: FBR)

Saw Hla Htun, the chairman of the Karen Youth Organization, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that several hundred villagers from Pa-an District in southern Karen State were unable to reach the border because Burmese soldiers and troops from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) are blocking their way.

The villagers are fleeing an offensive against Brigade 7 of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) that began nearly two weeks ago. Civilians are routinely targeted by Burmese troops as part of the regime’s efforts to cripple KNLA resistance.

Karen sources on the border said that refugees who have reached Thailand since the recent fighting began are now seeking shelter in Noh Bo, Oo Thu Hta and Mae Salit, in the district of Tha Song Yang in Thailand’s Tak Province.

According to the sources, Burmese troops are still shelling areas under the control of KNLA Brigade 7. They added that about six mortars have landed in Thai territory.

On Friday, a mortar landed near the village of Mae Salit in Tha Song Yang, putting local villagers on alert against the possibility of further cross-border attacks by the Burmese troops.

Schools in Mae Salit were also temporarily closed as a precaution, as villagers stand ready to evacuate, according to a Karen news organization known as Kwe Ka Lu.

Due to the ongoing attack, about five KNLA soldiers have been hospitalized in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, said officials from the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA.

KNU officials claimed that the fighting had killed about 20 soldiers from the combined Burmese and DKBA force, while around 50 others had been injured. Some local reports put the total number of dead and wounded at around 100.

Meanwhile, a couple of DKBA soldiers were also reportedly found in Thailand, according to KNU sources.

One DKBA soldiers from Battalion 555 was arrested on Friday after crossing the Moei River separating Thailand and Burma. He has been taken into custody and is being questioned by the Thai army, sources said.

The joint force of Burmese and DKBA troops has been attacking the area controlled by KNLA Brigade 7 since the first week of June. The combined force has launched few grounds attacks, fearing landmines planted by the KNLA, relying instead on heavy mortar shelling.

On Friday, fighting at the frontline increased in areas where KNLA Battalion 21 is based, according to the Free Burma Rangers, a relief group that assists civilian victims of the fighting deep inside the conflict zone.

The Burmese army also fired about 20 mortars into KNLA Brigade 7 areas on Friday, according to the KNU’s joint secretary (1), Maj Hla Ngwe. Further attacks and more refugees are also expected, he added.

Also, Burmese military sources reported that about 10 Burmese battalions under Military Operation Command 4 based in Phugyi, Rangoon Division, recently arrived in southern Karen Sate as reinforcements.

A source close to the Thai army said that the buildup is in preparation for a planned escalation of attacks on the KNLA. A major battle could take place within the next two days, he added.

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