Ethnic fighters battling way into key north Myanmar town

Ta'ang National Liberation Army fighters prepare their weapons amid clashes with Myanmar's military in Namhsan town, in the northern Shan State, on December 13, 2023AFP file photo

Myanmar ethnic minority fighters were battling their way into a town housing a regional military command, one of their leaders said Saturday.

Soldiers were "surrounding" the northern Shan state town of Lashio, home to the junta's northeastern command, general Tar Bhone Kyaw of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) told AFP.

Clashes first broke out on Wednesday as the ethnic fighters moved into the area.

A member of a local group of volunteers helping to treat the injured and bury the dead told AFP on Saturday that at least 16 civilians had been killed since fighting broke out in Lashio.

"There has been very strong fighting around the town," the rescuer said. "The fighting is still going on."

"We heard they (the TNLA) entered the town yesterday from the south."

Lashio sits on a major highway that runs from Myanmar's second city of Mandalay to China's Yunnan province.

Flights to the town from commercial hub Yangon had been cancelled since Wednesday morning, an airport source in Yangon told AFP earlier this week.

The so-called "Three Brotherhood Alliance" of ethnic armed groups launched an offensive last October against the military near Lashio and along the Chinese border.

Ethnic minority armed groups were also making progress against junta troops in the town of Mogok, to the west of Lashio, Tar Bhone Kyaw said.

"The western part is got," the general said of Mogok, which is surrounded by hills rich with rubies, sapphires, spinel, aquamarine and other semi-precious stones.

"We are trying to get the eastern part."

The alliance has seized swaths of territory and lucrative border crossings, dealing the junta its biggest blow since it seized power in 2021.

China brokered a ceasefire in January between the military and the alliance -- made up of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the TNLA.

But late last month, the TNLA launched fresh attacks in Shan state and the neighbouring Mandalay region.

Myanmar's borderlands are home to a myriad of ethnic armed groups, many of which have battled the military since independence from Britain in 1948 over autonomy and control of lucrative resources.