Karen rebel forces attack stranded Myanmar junta troops on Thai border

Junta sends in airstrikes to support 200 junta troops trapped by a river across from Mae Sot.
By Pimuk Rakkanam for RFA
2024.04.20
Mae Sot, Thailand
Karen rebel forces attack stranded Myanmar junta troops on Thai border Smoke billows across the border in Kayin, Myanmar, as Thai soldiers stand watch in Mae Sot, Thailand, April 20, 2024.
Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA

UPDATED at 15:30 ET on April 21, 2024.

Gunfire, artillery and exploding bombs could be heard early Saturday around Myawaddy, a Myanmar city on the Thai border across from Mae Sot, as an ethnic Karen army closed in on about 200 junta troops stranded near a bridge between the two countries, according to the Thai military and a Radio Free Asia reporter on the scene.

The clash comes after the Karen National Liberation Army, an armed branch of the Karen National Union, on April 10 captured most of the junta’s Infantry Battalion 275 stationed outside of Myawaddy. 

But 200 junta soldiers were left stranded at the customs compound at the No. 2 Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge across the Moei River that links the two countries.

The setback is the latest in a series of battlefield losses suffered by the junta as various rebel groups push the military back across the country amid the country’s three-year civil war that was sparked by the junta’s coup in February 2021.

The clashes started at 3 a.m. on Saturday, Thai soldiers keeping watch along the river and local residents said. The fight centered around the customs house at the bridge as the rebels apparently were intent on wiping out the remaining junta troops, they said.

“The KNU opened the charge first, the junta troops fought back,” a Thai soldier who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity told RFA.

ENG_BUR_KNUJuntaBorderFight_2.JPG
Residents are transported in trucks in Mae Sot, Thailand, as fighting intensifies between rebel and junta forces April 20, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

Several days ago, the junta announced “Operation Aung Zeya,” aimed at retaking Myawaddy, a key city on a major trading route with Thailand.

As the sun rose Saturday morning, the Myanmar Air Force deployed several sorties of Y-12, MiG-29 and MI-35 attack helicopters amid periodic exchanges of gunfire. Some residents at the bridge watched the planes with binoculars as a few stray rifle bullets whistled by, prompting them to duck.

Smoke billowed into the sky following each artillery shell and bomb explosion.  

The casualties on both Karen and junta soldiers as well as civilians were not immediately known.

ENG_BUR_KNUJuntaBorderFight_3.JPG
Smoke billows after a junta MiG-29 jet struck a Karen position in Kayin, Myanmar, as seen from Mae Sot, Thailand, April 20, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

An ambulance was seen driving in and out of the neighborhood near Thailand’s Yepu Hill overlooking the casinos in Myawaddy.

Several hundred people -- mostly from Myanmar -- working near the river were moved by truck to a livestock ranch a few kilometers north of the No. 2 bridge for safety. Thai authorities gave them food and medical services. Residents also brought aid to a checkpoint near the shelter. Most media were not allowed to enter the camp

Thailand’s foreign ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation with Thai security agencies on the ground on high alert.

“Thailand has been and will continue to provide further humanitarian assistance if necessary and will do our utmost to ensure the situation along the Thai-Myanmar border area returns to normalcy,” Nikorndej Balankura, the ministry spokesman said in a statement.

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Updated with details about people moved from near border area to camp.

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