YANGON, Myanmar, June 21 (UPI) -- A rebel army in northern Myanmar reportedly warned its troops to expect protracted fighting after clashes with government soldiers forced thousands of civilians to flee.
Religious groups, including Christian churches, in the town of Laiza in the mountainous Kachin state bordering China are caring for the refugees. Hundreds arrive daily, a report by the independent news organization Democratic Voice of Burma said.
Fighting broke out June 9 near Bhamo, around 40 miles from the Chinese border. The clashes marked the end a 15-year cease-fire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar central government.
Unconfirmed reports said at least four rebels and a number of government troops died. Several bridges also were destroyed by the KIA.
The government blamed the escalation in fighting on the KIA, a report in the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar said. KIA troops entered the Tarpein hydroelectric dam, a joint China and Myanmar project, and seized ammunition from security guards.
Troops were moved into the area to protect civilians and the dam, the New Light report said.
However, the KIA said fighting is a result of the breakdown of talks aimed at having KIA members join the central government's Border Guard Force, made up mainly of former rebel forces. The KIA refuses to join the BGF.
The government's policy of maintaining the BGF has been a relatively successful tactic between it and insurgents in several sensitive border areas, mainly in Kachin, in Shan state directly to the south and in Karen state, further south and which borders Thailand.
DVB also said a human rights group in Thailand said seven Kachin women were raped in separate attacks allegedly by Myanmar troops. Four of the women were subsequently killed.
All incidents were in, or close to, Bhamo where additional battalions of government soldiers have been deployed in the past two weeks to fight the KIA, the Kachin Women's Association Thailand said.
Further south, the government -- ostensibly civilian but consisting of former military leaders -- sent more troops into Karen state after sections of BGF in the state returned to their rebel group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.
Last week, two battalions of government troops were sent to Myainggyingu, where BGF troops left to join the DKBA. Two more battalions arrived this week.
No fighting has been reported but the army is looking for the rebellious BGF soldiers, a commander with the Karen National Liberation Army, which is fighting alongside the DKBA, said.
Despite ruling Myanmar, formerly called Burma, for most of the years since independence was granted by the British in 1948, the military has had uneasy relations with the country's ethnic peoples along its borders.
Last November, at the time of national elections, clashes between the Myanmar army and rebels in Karen state left several dozen people dead and sent thousands fleeing into Thailand, it was estimated at the time.
Many rebel groups were pressuring their people to boycott the national elections that the junta was setting up as the first civilian poll in nearly 20 years.
Several Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, condemned the vote as a sham. The winning party was a group consisting of many of the former military rulers who resigned their commissions to run as civilians.
Also, one-quarter of seats in Parliament are reserved for military appointments, which critics say makes the government a military one in all but name.