Heavy fighting between Burma's ruling military junta and minority ethnic rebels has sent tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring Thailand following hotly disputed weekend elections, welfare groups and rebel spokesmen said.
It was estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 refugees had poured into Thailand, fleeing from fighting that erupted between government forces and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) just as polling in Burma's first elections in 20 years ended on Nov. 7.
The DKBA is a breakaway group of Buddhist former soldiers and officers of the Karen National Liberation Army, one of the larger insurgent armies in Burma, which has been under virtually continuous military rule since 1962.
The DKBA has backed the junta but a faction split off in protests against the military plans to bring under its control some of the ethnic group armies, which currently act as border guards as part of a ceasefire agreement.
The rebels seized government offices in the town of Myawaddy in the Burmese side of the border with Thailand, resulting in the fighting with government troops there, as well as further south at the Three Pagodas Pass.
"There are now (an) estimated 15,000 refugees (who) have fled and (are being kept) in the Thai military barracks in (the Thai border town of) Mae Sot," the Karen National Union, the political arm of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) said in a statement to RFA.
"There are some residents stuck in the buildings in Myawaddy because they cannot find a way to flee due to the continuous attacks," it said.
Refugees in Mae Sot said that the junta had asked civilians to flee ahead of a major attack on rebel positions.
Myat Min, a volunteer working for a Burmese NGO at the border area, said there was an exodus of more than 25,000 refugees but the number could not be immediately confirmed.
Sources said the junta had dispatched 10 battalions totalling 1,000 troops to shore up their positions in Myawaddy.
"We are expecting a bigger battle," said a DKBA major Saw Kyaw Thet.
"The DKBA controls most of Myawaddy and they are preparing for battle," said Khin Kyaw, an army commander from the All Burma Students Democratic Front, a dissident group formed after the bloody suppression of student-led protests in 1988.
Eight junta soldiers have been captured by the DKBA, rebel spokesmen said.
"I was sent by my superiors for peace negotiations but fighting broke out and I was captured," said one of the soldiers, Captain Thet Naing.
An eyewitness said four Burmese junta troops were reported dead and three others were wounded, according to the Independent Mon News Agency.
It said two Thai soldiers were also wounded in the crossfire.
Several key ethnic groups have denounced the junta's weekend election as a ploy to end their struggle for autonomy under a federal system.
A day after the election, the junta faced charges of vote-rigging from opposition parties as well as one party linked to the military.
Western powers had condemned the polls, the first since 1990, as a sham because independent monitors were barred from observing the process and no foreign media were allowed to cover the landmark event.
"Mystery" bags of votes
The junta's political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is widely tipped to win the elections due to rules in its favor, has amassed most of seats declared so far, according to the Union Election Commission.
With the full result expected in a week, candidates in various areas complained about "mystery" bags of so called "advance" votes added at the last minute in favor of the USDP.
In Burma's southernmost town of Kawthaung, a candidate for the National Unity Party (NUP), the successor to the late dictator general Ne Win's party, said 85 of 100 bags of the advance votes were for the USDP.
Sam Maung, a political campaign lawyer, said advance votes, usually cast by military personnel and others who were on duty during polling day, had been abused.
In Burma's ethnic minority Mon state, on the south-eastern Andaman coast, the USDP was also accused of election fraud.
Naing Ngwe Theim, chairman of the All-Mon Democracy Party, said it was leading in 20 of the 34 seats it contested but chances fizzled out after alleged USDP irregularities.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine, Khin Khin Ei, Win Naing, Kyaw Min Htun, Ye Htet and Aung Moe Myint for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Soe Win. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai