YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Kachin ethnic rebels battling Myanmar's army in the country's north said they had shot down a government helicopter, but the army denied the claim, saying Saturday that the chopper crashed due to engine failure.
An emailed announcement from the Kachin guerrillas said they shot down the helicopter late Friday as heavy fighting raged.
Myanmar's deputy information minister and presidential spokesman, Ye Htut, confirmed on his Facebook page that a government helicopter had crashed, but said engine failure was to blame. He described the accident as an "emergency landing."
He later wrote that it had been confirmed that the crew, two pilots and a sergeant, had died in the crash, but added no further details.
It was the first helicopter crash since the military started launching air strikes against the Kachin rebels in the last week of December.
Both the government and the guerrillas have made misleading statements in the past about the fighting, which is in a remote area difficult for independent observers to access.
If the helicopter was shot down, it would represent a major loss of face for the government and complicate efforts to de-escalate the fighting.
Ye Htut said a helicopter that left the government's air base in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina "to carry out administrative activities made an emergency landing due to engine trouble, 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Myitkyina." The area where he said the helicopter crashed is not in the immediate vicinity of most of the main fighting.
Another senior official, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to release military information, identified the helicopter as an Mi-35, which is a Soviet-made gunship.
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 President Thein Sein's elected government, which came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.
Intermittent fighting escalated last month when the rebels rejected a government demand that they allow supply convoys to reach an army base. The Kachin headquarters at Laiza, near the border with China, and a government base are close to each other, and access to both is by the same road.
The Kachin staged attacks on government convoys trying to get through to the base, saying the supplies included ammunition that could be used to try to take their headquarters.
The army claims its actions are in self-defense, a response to the Kachin blocking the road. They have seized at least one of the guerrillas' hilltop posts by the road.
The United States, China and the United Nations have all urged a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but so far there seems to be little momentum toward negotiations.
The 88 Generation Students, a pro-democracy activist group, visited the Kachin headquarters in Laiza on a self-appointed mission last week to encourage peace talks between the government and the rebels and to donate relief supplies for Kachin displaced by the fighting.
The group said the Kachin guerrillas' deputy commander, Gwan Maw, had asked it to help repatriate 27 Myanmar government prisoners of war, an offer it claimed the government had not yet responded to.
A novel effort to promote peace talks was suggested by a Member of Parliament from Myitkyina who had been telecommunications minister under the former military government and a member of the government team to negotiate with armed ethnic groups under the current government.
According to Myanma Ahlin and other state newspapers, Thein Zaw proposed in Parliament on Friday that since the military tensions make it difficult for the two sides to engage in face-to-face talks in Kachin state, they instead hold "a transparent electronic online discussion."
While Myanmar's Internet infrastructure is shaky, especially in remote areas, the proximity of the Kachin headquarters to the border with China means its leaders could use Chinese telecommunications links.