Fighting has forced hundreds of people to flee their homes in Myanmar’s restive Kachin state after government troops launched a new offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels.
Clashes broke out in the region of Hpakant on Thursday, after Myanmar’s army launched new attacks against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) after the armed group briefly took the state transport minister hostage.
According to Burmese news site Irrawaddy, the fighting forced hundreds to escape the violence, and some 200 students to hide in local churches.
“Around 800 people from three different villages in Hpakant have fled their homes to escape the fighting. They are taking shelter in monasteries and churches,” Khon Ja, an activist from the Kachin Peace Network, told the AFP news agency.
Around 1,000 Burmese troops were dispatched to the conflict zone, Irrawaddy said.
The minister, Kamann Du Naw, was released soon after, but three police officers were still being held by KIA, the government-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
A local rebel commander said the army started shooting before dawn and fighting had raged throughout the day.
“We haven’t had such strong fighting like this in more than a year,” the KIA’s Colonel Tan Seng told the AFP from the rebel-stronghold of Laiza.
The surge in violence in Kachin has triggered concerns over already faltering peace talks.
Tensions have spiked in recent weeks after a November attack by the army on a rebel training centre in the town of Laiza. The shelling left more than 20 cadets dead, with an unknown number of rebel casualties.
Around 100,000 people have been displaced in the remote, resource-rich state bordering China since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the rebels broke down in June 2011.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has vowed to end the civil wars that have plagued the country’s ethnic minority areas for half a century, but talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire deal have appeared to hit the buffers in recent months, with long-held mistrust and the continued fighting in Kachin overshadowing negotiations.