By CAROLINE STAUFFER
2009-06-18 07:40 PM
Myanmar troops and their allies in the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a local militia, launched an offensive in early June against strongholds of the rebel Karen National Union, shelling their camps and sending more than 4,000 civilians fleeing into Thailand.
"We have intelligence that the KNU are withdrawing from their main headquarters to avoid casualties following recent fighting," said Thailand's Lt. Gen. Tanongsak Apirakyothin, who is in charge of the border region. He said the number of causalities so far was not known.
The Thai military maintains a close watch on the region, which sometimes sees fighting spill over the border.
The KNU has been fighting for more than 60 years for greater autonomy from Myanmar's central government, but its strength has dwindled over the past decade due to army offensives and divisions within its ranks.
KNU vice president David Tharckabaw said the rebel group has recently abandoned two camps and will withdraw from more, including its headquarters, if necessary for tactical redeployment.
"Our troops are planning to move behind enemy lines to pursue guerrilla warfare," Tharckabaw said. "If it is necessary ... any camp can be abandoned."
A Thai field commander in the area who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media said the plan to abandon the camps followed heavy shelling overnight.
The KNU earlier said Ler Per Her camp in Myanmar, which sheltered internal refugees, was abandoned last week, prompting one of the largest refugee movements into Thailand in recent years.
Tharckabaw said the rebels "killed or wounded more than 150 soldiers" in recent weeks. Only eight Karen have been wounded, by land mines, he said.
It was impossible to independently verify the claims because reporters cannot access the area and the Myanmar government has not responded to requests for details of the fighting.
But Myanmar's state media Thursday said the "so-called refugees" fleeing into Thailand were not ordinary villagers but Karen rebels and their families from five KNU brigades.
The fleeing people were taking shelter about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Mae Sot, a border town that is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northwest of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Some 100,000 mostly Karen refugees already shelter in camps in Thailand after fleeing counterinsurgency operations in the past two decades, while aid agencies say nearly half a million others are internally displaced inside eastern Myanmar.
Human rights groups as well as the United Nations have long accused the Myanmar government of torture, killings and rape of Karen civilians in their attempts to stamp out the insurgency. The military regime denies such allegations.