YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Battles between Myanmar troops and Kokang rebels near the Chinese border have killed 47 soldiers and wounded more than 70 others, state media said Friday, in a setback for the government as it steps up efforts to sign a nationwide cease-fire with ethnic insurgents.
The clashes, which began earlier this week, included at least 13 firefights and five government airstrikes, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
The number of rebel casualties was not immediately known.
Myanmar only recently emerged from a half-century of brutal military rule. Since assuming power in 2011, the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein has been trying to strike peace agreements with more than dozen ethnic rebel groups that have been fighting for decades for greater political autonomy in resource-rich border regions.
Though preliminary cease-fire pacts have been reached with most of the ethnic groups, clashes occasionally occur with Kachin, Shan and other armed groups. In addition to control over jade, timber and other natural resources in areas under their control, they want assurances that they will have some say over future troop movements.
This week's fighting near Laukkai, capital of the self-administered Kokang zone, has been some of the fiercest in the country in at least two years.
Nay Zin Latt, a political adviser of the president, said it was a "tactical move" by ethnic insurgents to derail government efforts to reach a nationwide peace deal.
"Groups that are reluctant to sign the accord have strategically aided the illegal Kokang rebels to create military tensions," he told The Associated Press. "Their ultimate mission is to put the ruling government in a fix and derail the cease-fire process."
China has been notified of the clashes, the newspaper said, citing concerns that citizens could start streaming across the border.
The Kokang guerrillas were the main fighting force for the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party until a cease-fire was signed with the then-military government in 1989.
This week's fighting was led by Phone Kya Shin, the newspaper said. Once the leader of the Kokang rebels, he split off several years ago and now heads a renegade faction. His men attacked military stations with the objective of capturing Laukai, 800 kilometers (500 miles) northeast of the country's biggest city, Yangon, it said.
It quoted local residents as saying that Kokang rebels had infiltrated the area by working in plantations and had carried out attacks using rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns.
As the fighting flared in northeastern Myanmar, four other ethnic groups signed an agreement in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Thursday pledging their commitment to a peace agreement.