Kolkata, April 28 : Ethnic Karen rebels, now training nearly 300 Burmese for urban insurgency, have unleashed a fresh offensive in eastern Myanmar near the Thailand border, capturing a military base and withstanding air strikes.
A rebel spokesman said fighters of the Karen National Union stormed the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) camp west of the Salween River, which demarcates part of the Thai-Myanmar border after four hours of fierce fighting on Tuesday.
“Our troops captured the Burmese military camp around 5 am after a midnight attack,” Karen National Union (KNU) head of foreign affairs Padoh Saw Taw Nee told IANS.
He said Karen fighters chased down stragglers from the Burmese army camp into the Salween river and shot many of them.
“The Tatmadaw was routed. It was a great victory,” Nee said.
Myanmar’s military staged air strikes for several hours later in villages in territory controlled by the Karen rebels, said Nee.
There was no immediate comment from Myanmar’s military on the incident.
Though the KNU spokesman does not yet officially admit training ethnic Burmese protesters who have formed groups like ‘Federal Army’ and ‘Burma Resistance’, that IANS was the first to report, it is reliably learnt that the KNU offensive was aimed at providing ‘safe passage’ to the Burmese protesters.
The KNU however admits to sheltering 2000 anti-coup dissidents.
“If KNU manages to occupy this camp west of Salween River, it is easy for us to reach them and train and arm ourselves to fight the military junta,” said Nay Lin, 28.
He joined the ‘Federal Army’ in March after military mowed down friends during street protests and headed southeast towards Karen province. Lin said over a messaging app that his group has now merged with two other hurriedly-formed groups in early April to form the United Defence Front (UDF).
“We will hit the Tatmadaw hard and also their Chinese backers,” he said.
Lin says most recruits for UDF were students and youths in 20-30 age group but some were between 35 and 40.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since Feb 1 military takeover in which elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted.
The anti-coup movement has received broad support in the country and some protesters have got together to form groups to hit back at the military and Chinese business interests, because Beijing is perceived as the main backer of the Tatmadaw.
Some of Myanmar’s armed insurgent groups, which have for decades been fighting the military for greater autonomy, have backed the popular uprising and the KNU has started arming and training ethnic Burmese to raise an urban insurgent force to take on the Tatmadaw.
The KNU agreed to a ceasefire in 2012, ending their insurgency for autonomy that began shortly after Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948.
But their forces have clashed with the army since it seized power on Feb 1.
Last month, after the KNU overran a military base, the junta responded with multiple air strikes at night, the first use of air power in Karen state in over 20 years.
Some villagers had already left their homes for other towns in fear of retaliation from the Myanmar military.
Clashes have intensified in the Karen state in recent weeks, displacing more than 24,000 civilians, including some 2,000 who crossed the river to seek brief refuge on the Thai side.
The KNU has condemned the military takeover and admitted to sheltering at least 2,000 anti-coup dissidents who fled urban centres of unrest.
Security forces have killed more than 750 civilians since February 1, according to a local monitoring group tracking the death toll.
The junta has a much lower figure and blames the violence on “rioters”.