Monday, June 8, 2009

3,000 Karen villagers flee Myanmar shelling

Ap, Bangkok
More than 3,000 ethnic Karen villagers have fled into Thailand as Myanmar troops shelled near a camp where they were sheltering, one of the largest movements of refugees across the border in a decade, aid groups said Sunday.

The Thailand-based Free Burma Rangers said that refugees began streaming out of the Ler Per Her camp in eastern Karen state on Friday and that Myanmar forces started launching mortar attacks Saturday morning during fighting with Karen guerrillas. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

The aid group, which conducts missions across the border inside Myanmar, reported the Karen National Union fighters were engaged in a fierce fire fight continuing Sunday with Myanmar forces near the camp, which lies in one of few last rebel redoubts along the border.

Thai Army Lt. Gen. Tanongsak Apirakyotin, who oversees the border region, acknowledged that fighting was ongoing and that since Wednesday refugees began coming across the Thai border. But he put the numbers of refugees at around 1,200.

The KNU has been fighting for half a century for greater autonomy from Myanmar's central government, but its strength has dwindled over the past decade due to army offensives and divisions within its ranks. Some 100,000 mostly ethnic Karen refugees already shelter in camps in Thailand after fleeing counterinsurgency operations and many more are believed displaced inside military-run Myanmar.

In a statement, the Free Burma Rangers called the shelling "a serious attack on defenceless people who fled just to get to the camp and now have had to flee over the border." It said as many as 4,000 refugees had fled to Thailand and that the Ler Per Her camp was mostly abandoned by Sunday.

The Karen Human Rights Group, a Thai-based humanitarian group sympathetic to the KNU, put the number of refugees at 3,000 but their count was only through Saturday. Still, the group said this was "the largest exodus from Karen State on a single occasion" since the government launched a major offensive against the KNU in 1997.

The refugees were taking shelter about 100 kilometres north of Mae Sot, a border town which is 380km northwest of the Thai capital, Bangkok.

A Myanmar government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the reports of fighting.

On Saturday, the rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide and pro-democracy groups including the US Campaign for Burma called on the United Nations to intervene to prevent a humanitarian crisis along the border.

The groups urged the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar's military regime and establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity.

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