Thursday May 23rd, 2024 2:57AM

Ethnic Karen guerrillas in Myanmar leave a town that army lost 2 weeks ago as rival group holds sway

By The Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Guerrilla fighters from the main ethnic Karen fighting force battling Myanmar’s military government have withdrawn from the eastern border town of Myawaddy two weeks after forcing the army to give up its defense, residents and members of the group said Wednesday.

Their withdrawal came after a contending armed Karen group, which has occupied the town and claimed responsibility for its security, provided assistance to army soldiers who had fled to a riverside spot there for safety.

The soldiers came from the army’s Infantry Battalion 275, whose base, about 4 kilometers (3 miles) to the west of Myawaddy, was captured on April 11 by the armed wing of the Karen National Union —- or KNU — and allied pro-democracy forces.

The fleeing soldiers reestablished themselves in an area next to one of Myawaddy’s two bridges connecting it to Thailand’s Mae Sot district.

The complicated maneuvering is the latest development in the nationwide conflict in Myanmar that began after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and suppressed widespread nonviolent protests that sought a return to democratic rule.

Despite its advantage in arms and manpower, Myanmar’s army had been on the defensive since last October, when an alliance of three ethnic rebel groups launched an offensive in the country’s northeast. Resistance forces since then have captured major swaths of territory in northern Shan state on the border with China, made significant gains in Rakhine state in the west, and continue to pressure the army elsewhere.

The soldiers now encamped next to the 2nd Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge were given at least tacit protection there by Kayin state's Border Guard Force, another armed Karen group that had been nominally affiliated with the military but announced last month they were cutting their ties and establishing themselves independently under the name of the Karen National Army.

The border guard units had been accused of providing protection to casino resorts in the Myawaddy area that have been decried as centers for organized crime, including online scam operations and human trafficking.

KNU spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee told journalists on Wednesday that its forces had withdrawn temporarily from Myawaddy as Border Guard Force units brought the soldiers hiding near the bridge to the abandoned Infantry Battalion 275 base, where they raised Myanmar’s national flag in place of the standard hoisted by the guerrillas when it occupied it.

Photos and video clips of a handful of soldiers raising Myanmar’s flag on Tuesday were circulated by supporters of the military government on the Telegram social network. It wasn't clear if any of the soldiers remained at the base after the photo opportunity, or if they returned to their campsite by the bridge.

The KNU is preparing to defend against an expected counterattack by the military government, and it keeping its units mobile rather than trying to hold territory.

A member of the Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, another Karen organization based in Myawaddy, told The Associated Press that the border guards had helped arrange the safe flight of the soldiers to their bridge encampment two weeks ago and provided them with food and weapons. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release information.

Myawaddy’s residents say the Border Guard Force has played a major role in taking charge of security measures in the town.

Last Friday, the Karen guerrillas launched a small attack aided by drones against the soldiers hiding near the bridge, and Myanmar’s military responded with airstrikes, dropping several bombs nearby for two days, and forcing about 3,000 residents to seek shelter in Thailand.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP World News
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