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Hundreds fleeing ethnic fighting in Myanmar, says UN

Written by: Staff
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BANGKOK, May 3 (Reuters) Around 1,800 ethnic Karen have fled Myanmar into Thailand in the last four months amid renewed fighting between Yangon's military junta and rebel guerrillas, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

Some of those seeking asylum say they were forced out of their villages close to the junta's half-built new capital near the town of Pyinmana, which used to be the centre of the former Burma's teak industry, officials said.

Bernard Quah, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand, said the exodus had accelerated since December, shortly after the junta made the shock announcement it was shifting its capital to a more central location.

''They consider themselves displaced because there is a lot of construction and people have been moved out of the villages,'' Quah told Reuters from the northwest town of Mae Hong Son, around 180 km (120 miles) from Pyinmana.

Thai border officials said a further 500 to 600 Karen were camped near the Salween River, which forms the border between the two nations, hoping to cross to meet relatives in two refugee camps in northwest Thailand.

''I've seen them for over a month,'' Sop Moei district chief Ronnarong Nakornjinda told Reuters by telephone, although he speculated they might be looking for jobs rather than running away from conflict.

Ethnic Karen rebels, who have been waging a 50-year war against Burmese rule, said last month the Myanmar army had launched one of its largest offensives in years, burning homes and crops and forcing thousands to flee.

Analysts say the attacks might be linked to the junta's sudden decision to move its capital to Pyinmana, a jungle town much closer to the mountainous areas where ethnic Karen, Shan, Mon and Karenni guerrillas are based.

The Burmese military, which has run the country under various guises since a 1962 coup, has previously denied launching an assault on rebel areas.

The Free Burma Rangers, a group that says it helps displaced people inside Myanmar, has estimated that as many has 11,000 Karen have been displaced by the fighting.

Thailand is home to more than 120,000 official long-term refugees from Myanmar, and experts believe another 500,000 people remain ''internally displaced'' as a result of conflict or junta policies such as forced labour.

REUTERS KD PM1612

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