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Ethnic Karen rebels attack key town in eastern Myanmar

BANGKOK (AP) — Rebels belonging to Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority have launched an anti-government offensive in a rare effort to seize a town in the eastern part of the country, the guerrillas and military government said Friday.

Clashes in the town of Kawkareik in Kayin state, also known as Karen, began Friday morning with a surprise attack by an alliance of at least five Karen rebel groups.

They announced they had attacked military targets, administrative offices, government personnel housing and police stations.

Government forces responded with aerial bombardments and shelling.

Two of the attacking rebel groups, Lion Battalion Commando and Albino Tiger Battalion-1, announced on Facebook that the alliance launched the offensive to seize the town, and that by the afternoon it had been surrounded and was being patrolled by the joint rebel force.

A battalion of the Karen National Liberation Army, an armed wing of the main Karen political organization, Karen National Union, was also among the allied forces fighting the army.

Kawkareik, with an area of about 8.3 square kilometers (3.2 square miles) and a population of over 40,000, is a strategically located town linking the rest of the country with the city of Myawaddy, a key trading center 32 kilometers (20 miles) to the northeast on the border with Thailand.

The Karen, like other minority groups living in border regions, have struggled for decades for greater autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. In recent years, the Karen have been mostly on the defensive, facing better-armed and bigger government forces, and hindered at times by factionalism.

Fighting between the army and Karen armed groups has intensified since the military seized power in February last year from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Several ethnic rebel groups including the Karen have loose alliances with pro-democracy militias formed after the military takeover, and also offer refuge to the government’s opponents.

State-run MRTV television reported Friday night that the Karen National Liberation Army, the Klo Htoo Baw Karen Organization and the People’s Defense Force, a pro-democracy militia formed last year, had attacked government personnel housing and security checkpoints along the town’s main road after firing heavy artillery into the town.

It said the military responded with air strikes, artillery and armored vehicles, forcing what it described as “terrorists” to move east and north of the town to prevent its capture.

The report said three people were killed and 16 others injured by rebel artillery.

“The Karen armed groups started shooting at the security forces. The army fired artillery shells into the town. Aircraft also launched aerial attacks several times and those were scary,” said a town resident contacted by phone.

The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears punishment from the authorities, said many homes were hit by artillery.

“We are looking for a safe place, and hiding,” she said. According to her, the Karen resistance forces were patrolling outside of the town, and the army’s Infantry Battalion 97, located west of the town, was continuing to fire artillery into residential areas.

The Karen Information Center, which is allied with the rebel cause, said government shelling killed at least one civilian and injured two others. It said five government soldiers were killed in the fighting.

An emergency medical worker who also asked not to be identified said at least 21 people were hit by artillery and gunfire, and three died after being sent to the town hospital.

Grant Peck, The Associated Press