Hundreds of ethnic Kokang refugees fled mountain villages close to the Chinese border in northern Myanmar on Thursday after a night of heavy shelling between government forces and rebel troops, local residents said.
"The people are continuing to leave the mountain areas," a local resident on the Kokang side of the border opposite the Chinese town of Nansan told RFA. "Some 500 or 600 people have already come down from the mountains."
"They are heading for Nansan."
He said some refugees had turned up at the No. 125 Boundary Marker refugee camp on the Kokang side, but that few now regarded the camp as safe enough to remain in.
"It's dangerous here," the man said. "There was fighting throughout the day [on Wednesday]; we could hear the shelling."
"The shelling continued all day and all night," he said.
Young boy killed
A 10-year-old boy who fled across the border with a group of Kokang refugees on Wednesday died in a Yunnan hospital after triggering a land mine, local sources told RFA.
His journey to hospital was repeatedly delayed by military checks and roadblocks, and he arrived too late for emergency treatment to save him, they said.
"I saw a little kid yesterday who had stepped on a land mine, and his leg had been blown off," an ethnic Kokang woman on the Chinese side of the border surnamed Zhang told RFA on Thursday.
"We took him to the [Zhenkang] county hospital, but they couldn't save him. He had already died," she said.
She said another young boy had been stranded on the Kokang side after a trip back across the border, where many refugees have returned briefly in recent days to collect personal belongings and supplies.
"He had left his papers at home and he was going back to Laukkai to get them, but the Myanmar army wouldn't let him continue because of the fighting," Zhang said.
An ethnic Kokang aid worker surnamed Yuan said he had also seen the boy who was killed.
"The child was blown up while they were coming down out of the mountains," Yuan said. "They took him to the hospital in Nansan, but they couldn't save him."
"His father brought him over from the 125 [Boundary Marker] refugee camp," he said.
He said government landmines in the region used tripwires.
"The kid probably pulled one of the tripwires while he was playing," Yuan said. "The government has laid a lot of mines this time."
Many thousands flee
Kokang rebel forces escort refugees across the Chinese border, Feb. 25, 2015. Credit: Kokang resident
An estimated 100,000 people have already fled the remote and rugged conflict zone in northeastern Shan state across the border into China's Yunnan province, Chinese aid workers have told RFA.
Myanmar's army is trying to hold the region against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebel forces under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, who is trying to retake the Kokang self-administered zone which it had controlled until 2009.
Peng returned from exile at an unknown border location after his defeat in 2009, launching an attack with troops who had previously infiltrated Laukkai town on Feb. 9, local media reported.
Experts say the legal status of many residents of Kokang is undetermined, and that many identify as Chinese despite being referred to as ethnic Kokang by Myanmar officials.
The MNDAA, which has its roots in the China-backed Communist Party of Burma, on Wednesday denied Myanmar government claims that Chinese mercenaries are fighting alongside rebel forces in Kokang.
Its statement was echoed by a commentary from China's official Xinhua news agency, which hit out at "misleading speculations" about Beijing's role in the Kokang conflict.
"Proximity and ethnicity have bred misleading speculations about Chinese involvement in the ongoing conflict in northern Myanmar close to the bilateral border," the agency said in an article published on Wednesday.'Nothing but trouble'
Beijing "strongly opposes" the participation of any Chinese nationals in the Kokang conflict, saying it would hesitate to encourage violence on its own doorstep.
"Any escalation of the conflict in northern Myanmar could spell nothing but trouble for China," the article said.
It said humanitarian aid provided by Yunnan authorities to Kokang refugees "should not be misinterpreted" as support for either side in the conflict.
Yun Sun, East Asia Program fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said the Kokang conflict is a major headache for Beijing, whose involvement dates back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under Chairman Mao Zedong.
"The attempt by the MNDAA to retake the area, the military clashes, and the flight of refugees to China are all putting huge pressure on China's border area," Sun told RFA in an interview earlier this month.
"Drugs from there make their way back into China, and their casinos are exclusively aimed at attracting tourists from China," she said.
The MNDAA was formerly part of a China-backed guerrilla force called the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and became the first of about a dozen factions to sign a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the government after the group broke apart in 1989.
However, the agreement faltered in 2009 when armed groups came under pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar's military—a move the MNDAA resisted.Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.