Yangon, Feb 16: Growing clashes between Myanmar's army and ethnic Kokang fighters in a region next to China killed more than 20 rebels over the weekend, state-backed media said today, as Beijing warned that the fighting threatened border stability.
China also vowed not to let the ethnic Chinese rebels operate from its territory, after the dramatic upsurge in conflict in Myanmar's northeastern state of Shan that has left dozens dead on both sides.
Urging both sides to "exercise restraint", Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing that more fighting "will have an impact on the stability of the China-Myanmar border areas and the security on the Chinese side of the border".
Hua said China respects Myanmar's "territorial integrity" and vowed it "will not allow any organisation or individual to carry out activities undermining China-Myanmar relations... (from) within Chinese territory."
Myanmar authorities have blamed local Kokang rebel leader Phone Kya Shin for the fighting, and called on Beijing to rein in any local officials who might be helping the group on its side of the border.
Nearly 2,000 people have fled the area for central Myanmar, according to a report in state-backed media on today. Hua did not give details of the number of people who have crossed the border into China to escape the heavy fighting.
The Myanmar military has launched airstrikes against rebels who tried to capture Kokang's main town of Laukkai.
Unrest flared in Kokang on February 9, shattering nearly six years of relative calm, in a blow to Myanmar's quasi-civilian government as it tries to forge a historic nationwide ceasefire to end the country's myriad ethnic minority conflicts.
Details of the fighting in the remote mountainous region remain difficult to confirm. In 2009 more than 30,000 people flooded over the border into China as Myanmar's army launched an offensive against Kokang rebels.
The fighting earned Myanmar's then-junta a rare rebuke from China, the country's powerful northern neighbour which at the time was almost its sole ally on the international stage.
The Global New Light of Myanmar today reported that eight captured Kokang rebels had "died of their wounds" in custody, while a further 18 others had been killed in recent fighting.
Myanmar's military last week said 47 of its own soldiers had been killed and dozens more injured in the first few days of the conflict, in unusually candid reports of casualty numbers.