Government soldiers fighting ethnic Kokang rebel forces in northern Myanmar are holding at least 14 civilians and forcing them to work as porters and human shields, sources in the region said on Wednesday.
The men were conscripted after government forces detained a group of more than 20 ethnic Kokang families who were en route back to their homes from the Maidihe refugee camp that straddles the border with China's Yunnan province, Kokang aid workers said.
The soldiers later released the women and children, but kept the men, they said.
"They said they were going back home to pick up some of their belongings, but that the men were taken, and the women were later released," an aid worker who declined to be named said.
"People here in the camps said there were 14 men, and that they would be pressed into service as porters to carry supplies for government troops," he said.
"When there is no fighting, they carry stuff, and when there is fighting they are used as a human shield," the aid worker said.
"This has already happened many times."
An aid worker surnamed Li at the Maidihe camp said Chinese authorities in Yunnan appeared to have relaxed their border controls in recent days after forcing thousands to leave camps last week.
"We heard shelling today ... things are pretty tense here, and they are telling us to hurry across to China to take refuge there, as the military situation is escalating and will probably affect the camps [on the Myanmar side]," Li said.
"The Chinese side told us this, and the youngest and oldest have all gone across to China," he said, adding: "We are staying here to guard the tents ... but we are moving."
Attempt to retake zone
Fighting began on Feb. 9 in Laukkai between Myanmar government troops and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebel forces.
The MNDAA under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng is trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which it had controlled until 2009, forcing an estimated 100,000 refugees away from the conflict zone and across the border into China.
Li also confirmed earlier reports that the Myanmar army is conscripting civilians.
"About 20 families were heading back to their homes in Kokang, when they came upon some Myanmar soldiers, who took all of their husbands away," Li said.
"The women came back to the refugee camp [at Maidihe]," he added.
Some 800 people have already crossed the small river that demarcates the border with China at Maidihe, and are now on the Yunnan side, Li said.
Myanmar's defense ministry reported two death and seven injuries following fighting in the hills around Laukkai on Tuesday, close to the No. 119 border marker and near Shiguolin.
China opens border
Rebels pass through a mountainous region of Myanmar's Shan state, March 11, 2015. Credit: Kokang volunteer
(Photo courtesy of a Kokang volunteer)
A Kokang aid worker based near Laukkai surnamed Zhao said fighting had continued into the night, including in the regional capital itself.
"It seemed to go on until about 1.00 or 2.00 a.m., and we helped more than 100 civilians caught up in it," Zhao said.
"They came down from the mountains, and we met them halfway up."
He said the Chinese authorities had also opened the border next to the No. 125 border marker.
"You can [get through]," Zhao said.
China's Red Cross has also been building tented accommodations from bamboo and sugar cane leaves to offer humanitarian shelter to thousands of refugees currently at Maidihe, the Global Times
newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported on Wednesday.
Beijing on Tuesday called on the Myanmar government to investigate an incident in which four bombs exploded in villages on China's side of the border on March 8.
No one was killed or injured, but there was some damage, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
"It is to our knowledge that amid conflicts between Myanmar's government forces and local ethnic militias on March 8, stray bombs hit the Chinese side and damaged a civilian residence," Hong said.
"Luckily, no one was injured or killed. The Chinese side has expressed grave concerns to the Myanmar side, asking them to get to the bottom of this incident as soon as possible and take effective measures to ensure that such incidents will never happen again," Hong said.
The Kokang conflict has disturbed the stability and normal order of the China-Myanmar border areas, he said.Farm, charity projects
Farther south, in the Shan town of Lashio, at a Buddhist center founded by a veteran of earlier wars in the region, followers continued their work on an organic farm and charity projects begun by a former Kuomintang Nationalist soldier-turned-Buddhist monk.
Master Hsin Tao founded the Lingjiushan Buddhist group in 1948 after fighting with KMT troops along the border region during World War II after losing his mother in the war at the age of four.
The Lingjiushan group now owns the organic Nongman Farm off the Lashio-to-Muse highway, south of the current fighting in Shan, he said.
It uses principles of sustainable farming to produce lemon-grass prized in southeast Asian cuisine.
"Master Hsin Tao put all of his energy into the design and running of Nongman Farm," Buddhist disciple and farm-worker Lei Xueren told RFA.
"But as well as his agricultural work, Hsin Tao is also taking in large numbers of orphans and will offer them a safe place to stay, accommodation, and education," he said.
"The next step is that we want to develop our medical services, an ethnic minority community center, and an international Buddhist center," Lei said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Lee Tung for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.