BANGKOK Myanmar's continued military offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north has sent tens of thousands fleeing their home and threatens a humanitarian crisis, a campaign group said on Friday.
Recent ceasefire talks between the nominally civilian government that took office in March and at least two ethnic armed groups have had some success, but tension with the Kachin Independence Army has increased to "boiling point", Refugees International said.
Fighting in the decades-old conflict flared up in June in pockets of the jungle in the northern state of Kachin controlled by the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, after a 17-year ceasefire broke down.
"Refugees International is extremely concerned for the safety of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) that are living in various camps in KIO-controlled areas whose shelters and camps are right in between the Tatmadaw (the army) and the KIO bases," said Lynn Yoshikawa, Refugees International's southeast Asia advocate.
"The conflict in Kachin State requires both immediate humanitarian assistance and long-term assistance," she told a news conference in Bangkok, after a recent visit to Myitkyina, the state capital, and other ethnic areas.
Aid agencies and sources in the area estimate between 30,000 and 40,000 people are living in makeshift jungle camps in KIO-controlled areas not accessible to many aid organisations, including the United Nations.
Assistance is only possible through neighbouring China, which has publicly stated its unwillingness to host a huge number of IDPs, Yoshikawa said, urging donors to provide funds for local Kachin groups that are supporting the displaced.
Fighting has intensified in the past week and refugee camps have swollen, sources from Kachin told Reuters.
"It's like an exodus," said an ethnic Kachin woman who works closely with aid workers and did not want to be identified.
"New camps are being created every day. Many are not recorded," she said in Yangon, showing detailed lists of numbers of IDPs that she and colleagues had collated.
A Myitkyina resident who declined to be named because she feared for the safety of her family and herself said a gun battle had been heard in the town on the night of December 6.
"We hear bombs every night. We are used to it. But not gunfire," said the woman, who described herself as a freelance relief worker.
She said checkpoints dotted the city of about 100,000 people and although there was no official curfew, "nobody dares go out after 5.30 or 6 p.m. We keep hearing about arrests for no reason."
Yoshikawa said it was not clear what was behind the fighting or who was ordering the army to go on the offensive. "But it is not a promising sign for ethnic peace throughout the area," she said.
Hillary Clinton, who last week became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, has urged the country to take further steps to release political prisoners and end ethnic conflicts.
(Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)
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