Myanmar army hits rebel base near Thai border

Myanmar troops launched ground and mortar attacks against a key stronghold of the Karen rebels Wednesday, stepping up a major offensive against the ethnic minority group, senior rebel commanders said. Several hundred troops attacked a brigade headquarters of the Karen National Union about 5 kilometers (3 miles) inside Myanmar from the Thai frontier, said rebel commanders speaking from the scene of fighting who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Karen guerrillas have been battling the central government for decades, seeking greater autonomy. Cease-fire talks broke down in 2004, and in recent months the Myanmar army has launched a major offensive in Karen State of eastern Myanmar . The officers said three Myanmar battalions and a battalion of Karen who earlier broke away from the KNU launched the attack against Watkalupu Camp, where the KNU's 7th Brigade is headquartered. After two unsuccessful ground assaults, the attackers withdrew but more attacks were expected.

The scene of the fighting is opposite Thailand 's Tak province. Further north along the rugged, porous border, several hundred Karen refugees displaced by the fighting were preparing to cross into Thailand , joining nearly 2,000 others who fled earlier. The campaign, which began last November, has driven at least 11,000 Karen villagers from their eastern Myanmar homes, according to the Free Burma Rangers, an aid group operating inside the military-ruled nation once known as Burma.

The military has burned villages, destroyed rice fields and killed civilians in northern and western areas of Karen State as it tries to suppress the KNU, the groups says. The government says it is taking security measures against "terrorist insurgents," but denies that an offensive is underway, and that its troops have violated human rights.

U.S. lawmakers last week urged the U.N. Security Council to take urgent action against the junta in response to the offensive. The U.S. State Department condemned the recent attacks, which Thai and foreign aid officials fear will add to Thailand 's refugee burden.

More than 140,000 Karen and other ethnic minority refugees live in a string of camps along the border. Analysts say the scale of the recent attacks is the largest since a 1997 anti-Karen offensive, and the KNU fears it may continue through this year's rainy season, which generally begins in May.

Myanmar 's military regimes, which first came to power in 1962, battled many minority insurgent groups seeking autonomy until a former junta member, Gen. Khin Nyunt, negotiated cease-fires with 17 of them. But his ouster in 2004 reinforced hard-liners and "resulted in increasing hostility directed at ethnic minority groups," U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in its 2006 report.

The KNU is the largest rebel organization still fighting the 500,000-member military. The violence of recent years largely ignored by the international community has spawned an estimated 1 million internal refugees and accelerated an exodus to neighboring countries, reports the AP.

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