YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Ethnic Kachin rebels in Myanmar accused government troops of launching two artillery attacks Sunday against the city that serves as their headquarters, but no casualties or significant damage were reported.
Army forces based at a nearby outpost fired at least seven 105mm shells at the northern city of Laiza, four rounds in the morning and three more before dusk, rebel spokesman La Nan told The Associated Press.
A senior government official denied the accusation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.
Fighting has wracked northern Myanmar since a cease-fire that held for nearly two decades broke down in June 2011 after rebels refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company. The conflict has forced around 100,000 Kachin from their homes since then, and many are in camps near Laiza, which is held by the rebels and located near the Chinese border.
Fighting between the two sides appears to have intensified in recent weeks, with the government pounding rebel positions with helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
La Nan, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Army, said it was the second artillery attack on Laiza since Dec. 19.
Another rebel official, who declined to be identified because he is not a spokesman for the insurgents, said the shells fired Sunday morning fell near several homes that were hit by shrapnel but not significantly damaged. Rebel forces did not return fire, he said.
Tension with ethnic minorities fighting for greater autonomy in Myanmar is considered one of the biggest major long-term challenges for reformist President Thein Sein, who inherited power in 2011 from the army, which ruled for almost half a century.
The Kachin, like Myanmar's other ethnic minorities, have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. They are the only major ethnic rebel group that has not reached a truce with Thein Sein's administration.
The recent fighting in Kachin state escalated on Christmas Day, when the rebels rejected a government demand that supply convoys be allowed to reach an army base, contending that they carried ammunition that could be used to attack their nearby headquarters. The government then used fighter planes and helicopters to mount attacks and seized one of the guerrillas' hilltop outposts.
The skirmishes have raised fears among rebels and their supporters that the army is readying to launch an offensive on Laiza, but as recently as New Year's Eve, a presidential adviser said the military had given assurances it would not do so. The army says it has launched recent air attacks to clear a road of rebels so it could supply a base.
On Friday, the government said in a statement that the army had been given orders to cease all offensives against the guerrillas, but that it had to protect its soldiers after the Kachin continued to set off land mines and ambush their forces.