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Myanmar troops withdraw from border hub, ethnic rebels say

A member of a Myanmar militia holds a beer can and a weapon while talking to a comrade across the Moei river on the Myanmar side, as seen from Thailand's Mae Sot district
A member of a Myanmar militia holds a beer can and a weapon while talking to a comrade across the Moei river on the Myanmar side, as seen from Thailand's Mae Sot district - Copyright AFP Manan VATSYAYANA
A member of a Myanmar militia holds a beer can and a weapon while talking to a comrade across the Moei river on the Myanmar side, as seen from Thailand's Mae Sot district - Copyright AFP Manan VATSYAYANA
Thanaporn PROMYAMYAI

Myanmar junta troops have withdrawn from their positions in a major trade hub near the Thai border following days of clashes, an ethnic armed group said Thursday, in a further blow to the embattled military.

On the border near the valuable trading town of Myawaddy, AFP reporters in Thailand heard shelling early Thursday after witnessing hundreds of people queuing the night before to seek safety in the kingdom.

By Thursday afternoon, while the flow into Thailand’s Mae Sot town had lessened, people like 26-year-old Sadi were anxiously waiting for relatives.

“I’m just about holding it together,” he told AFP, checking his phone again as he explained his fiancee was still in Myanmar.

The country has been roiled with conflict since the army overthrew a democratically-elected government in 2021, but the junta is facing its gravest threat yet after large-scale losses in recent months.

This week Karen National Union (KNU) fighters and other anti-junta groups launched an assault on Myawaddy town.

Myawaddy is a vital possession for the cash-strapped junta, with more than $1.1 billion worth of trade passing through it in the 12 months to April, according to the junta’s commerce ministry.

The remaining 200 or so junta troops in the town had withdrawn from their positions late Wednesday, Padoh Saw Taw Nee, a spokesman for the Karen National Union (KNU) told AFP.

The troops were now sheltering on a bridge that connects Myawaddy to the Thai border town of Mae Sot, he said, claiming the KNU was now in control of the whole town.

AFP could not independently verify the claim as reporters are unable to access Myawaddy but a local Thai border official said the town had “fallen” late Wednesday.

On Thursday, Thai soldiers and armoured cars stood on alert at the border in 37-degree heat, where AFP reporters heard a plane flying in the direction of Myawaddy followed by a thudding sound around 10:30 am local time (0330 GMT).

Residents of Myawaddy told AFP that the military was carrying out airstrikes on the town but they had not seen KNU fighters in the streets.

The complete capture of the town would be a humiliating defeat for the junta, which has suffered a string of battlefield losses in recent months.

– ‘Dust settles’ – 

 

But independent Myanmar analyst David Mathieson told AFP it was “still too early to assess who actually controls Myawaddy and actually what constitutes control, as opposed to presence.”

“The dust may not settle for days to come,” he said.

At the “Friendship Bridge No.2” on the Thai side the trucks that normally carry medicine, consumer goods and construction materials into Myanmar were standing idle, AFP reporters saw.

A Thai border official said that checkpoints were open on both sides, but that no goods traffic was moving. 

The Myanmar junta was sending reinforcements towards Myawaddy, military sources told AFP on Thursday, although with some routes to the town in the hands of its opponents it was unclear when or how they would arrive.   

Locals near the town of Kyonedoe along the main highway to Myawaddy told AFP they had seen dozens of trucks and tanks carrying equipment and hundreds of soldiers.

The junta is anxious to avoid losing another major town, analysts say, following the humiliating surrender of around 2,000 troops at the town of Laukkai on the northern China border in January. 

Three brigadier-generals who led that surrender have since been sentenced to death, according to military sources.  

Mathieson said Myawaddy’s economic importance could prevent a major escalation of fighting in the town itself.

“All sides must be wondering if Myawaddy is so important is it a good idea to invite destruction of the town and its infrastructure?” he said.

The latest bout of fighting has sent many fleeing into the safety of neighbouring Thailand, which shares a 2,400-kilometre (1,490-mile) border with Myanmar.

Authorities in the kingdom have said they are preparing to accept up to 100,000 people displaced by the clashes.

Thailand’s foreign minister will travel to the border Friday, the ministry said Thursday, without detailing the specifics of his trip.

rma-tp-hla-rbu/sn 

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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