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Myanmar launches airstrikes on Kachin rebels

The Myanmar government has carried out airstrikes this week against ethnic rebels in northern Kachin state, raising fresh concerns about reforms and a fragile peace process.

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Heavy fighting between the Myanmar Army and the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is raising concern that a major escalation of violence is under way in the region, casting a shadow over Myanmar's much-touted reforms.

The Myanmar Army offensive – which includes the use of helicopter gunships and fighter jets – comes after weeks of heavy fighting at outposts about 10 miles outside the KIA headquarters on the Myanmar-China frontier. 

The government of Myanmar (also known as Burma) and the KIA signed a cease-fire in 1994, but that came apart in June 2011, even as the government embarked on reforms that include tentative cease-fires with some of the myriad other ethnic minority armed groups that have long fought in the border regions. 

With peace talks between the government and KIA stalled, President Thein Sein has told the Army only to fight in self-defense in Kachin, but the latest violence could signal that this request has been rescinded, or that the reformist president is being ignored by the Army.

“The situation is very tense. The bombers are bombing just about four or five miles from the town here,” says Joseph Nbwi Naw, a Kachin Catholic priest in the KIA headquarters in Laiza, a valley town separated from Yunnan, China, only by the 1 ft. deep, 20-yard-wide Jeyang River.

“People are digging trenches and foxholes in the town,” says La Nan, KIA spokesperson.

Ethnic groups in the northern part of the country have long accused the government of repression, and have been fighting for greater autonomy.

The Kachin – supported by a smaller militia known as the All Burma Students Democratic Front – countered a Myanmar Army attempt to resupply soldiers near the front line Dec. 14 by overrunning an Army position near a Buddhist temple on the main road from Laiza to Myitkina, the government-held state capital of the Kachin region – upping the ante in a grueling 18-month war.

Since the fighting ramped up in mid-December, at least one civilian and an unverifiable number of soldier militia members have died.

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