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Apr 14, 4:52 AM EDT

Myanmar says its troops make gains against ethnic rebels


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Myanmar says its troops make gains against ethnic rebels

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Myanmar government troops have occupied more than 20 strategic positions held by ethnic Kokang rebels in two months of fierce fighting near the border with China, state media said Tuesday, but a spokesman for the insurgents denied the claim.

The state-run Kyemon newspaper reported that government troops using artillery and tanks had taken the positions since Feb. 9, when fighting broke out. The violence has left more than 100 soldiers dead, according to the government, and has driven thousands of civilians seeking safety into China.

Kokang spokesman Htun Myat Lin, asked for comment by The Associated Press, agreed that the government used artillery and tanks, but denied that his forces had lost so many strategic positions.

He said the government had suffered about 700 soldiers killed and 1,500 wounded, and that Kokang casualties were about 30 dead and more than 60 wounded. Independent verification of the number of casualties in the remote region is impossible.

President Thein Sein's government has been striving to strike a peace agreement with about a dozen ethnic insurgent groups aimed at ending decades of armed rebellion, but a comprehensive cease-fire has yet to be signed.

The fighting near Laukkai, capital of the self-administered Kokang zone, has been some of the fiercest during Thein Sein's four years in power. Due to the heavy fighting, the government on Feb. 17 instituted military administration, giving the army executive and judicial powers in the region.

The latest fighting began when Kokang rebels led by Phone Kya Shin attacked military installations in what the government said was a bid to capture Laukkai, which is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) northeast of Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. The government called the Kokang actions a threat to state sovereignty.

The government has accused several other ethnic groups of supporting the Kokang rebels in combat, naming guerrilla armies from the minority areas of Kachin, Mong La, Wa, Palaung and northern Shan state. Myanmar officials have also claimed that former Chinese soldiers have trained the Kokang. All those accused have denied the allegations.

China's government has disavowed any links with the militants, saying it respects Myanmar's sovereignty and that it will not allow any group to use Chinese territory to destabilize a neighboring country. But tensions were heightened on March 13 when a bombing run by a Myanmar plane killed five farmers on the Chinese side of the border, leading to an official apology.

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