RANGOON—Kachin ethnic rebels in northern Burma said on Thursday that military air attacks against them are continuing, but that the guerrillas still hold key positions protecting their main base.
Kachin Independence Army spokesman La Nan acknowledged that one of the guerrillas’ hilltop posts had fallen, as reported by the government. But he said other posts remain in rebel hands to safeguard their main base at Laiza.
Burma’s military on Wednesday acknowledged carrying out air attacks and seizing the hilltop position to keep the Kachin from blocking supply convoys to a government base at Lajayang, which is near Laiza. The Kachin admit attacking the convoys, saying they carry ammunition and arms that put their own base at risk of being overrun.
La Nan said two government fighter planes launched rocket attacks on Thursday, following several days of strafing and bombing by fighter planes and helicopters.
The Kachin, like Burma’s other ethnic minorities, have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. They are the only major ethnic rebel group that has not reached a cease-fire agreement with elected President Thein Sein’s reformist government, which came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.
The United States has said the use of air power in Kachin state is “extremely troubling.” On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is seeking clarity on the situation following conflicting statements from Burma authorities, and is urging both the government and Kachin representatives to stop fighting.
“Our view is that all sides need to cease and desist and get into dialogue with each other,” she told a news briefing.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Burma’s authorities “to desist from any action that could endanger the lives of civilians living in the area or further intensify the conflict in the region,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. Ban called on the government and rebels to work toward political reconciliation.
“It is necessary to hold a dialogue,” La Nan said on Thursday in an email interview. “Military means will only prolong the problem. Peace can be achieved only through political dialogue.”
He said there appeared to have been casualties on both sides, but the government suffered more losses as the attacking force. The military’s announcement on Wednesday said several soldiers were killed and injured in attacks by the Kachin.
The military’s acknowledgment that it was carrying out an air attack came just two days after a presidential spokesman denied there was an air offensive, and raised new questions about how answerable the army is to the government.
The military by law continues to hold much influence in government, and is also seen as pulling the strings behind the scenes, even as Thein Sein’s government has been hailed for instituting democratic reforms. An order in late 2011 by Thein Sein to halt offensive operations against the Kachin was not honored in practice.
Tensions with ethnic minorities are considered a major long-term problem for any Burma government and a threat to the nascent democracy.
Fighting erupted in Kachin state in June 2011 after the KIA refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company.
The government last month delivered an ultimatum to the Kachin to clear a road by Christmas Day so it could supply its base. The Kachin rejected the ultimatum for fear of a government attack on their own outpost.