Chinese workers flee Myanmar fighting

YANGON - More than 200 Chinese workers have returned home from Myanmar after separatist rebels attacked a hydropower plant in the northern border province of Kachin, state media in Myanmar said on Saturday, the first official comment on the recent fighting.

The Chinese ambassador had met Myanmar's foreign and border affairs ministers on Friday, media said, without giving details of the discussion.

An official statement in the daily New Light of Myanmar outlined several threats since April by the Kachin Independence Army against Chinese projects in Kachin State, including the Tarpein Hydropower Project.

"The project, which is equipped with four 60-MHz generators, ceased to operate as from 14 June, causing a great loss to the state and the people," it said.

Altogether, 215 Chinese employees assigned to the project returned to China from June 9 to 14, it said.

Responding to an attack by Myanmar's army, the KIA blew up 25 bridges in the region from June 14 to 16, it added.

Residents in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, said the region remained tense, but it was not clear if fighting was still going on.

Sources in Kachin have said hundreds of people had fled their homes in the mountainous region to escape eight days of fighting up until Thursday.

An estimated 2,000 people were reported to have sought shelter in a camp run by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the rebels' political arm, and another 7,000 had set up tents and shelters in the jungle along the frontier.

The KIO has battled the central government for decades but agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 under which its fighters were allowed to keep their arms.

However, tension has been rising since last year, largely because the Kachin have resisted government pressure to fold their men into a state-run border security force.

Analysts say Myanmar's 10-week old government, the country's first civilian-led administration in five decades, is intent on seizing control of the rebellious states but is reluctant to engage in conflict with the numerous factions.

Chinese-built dams have been divisive projects in Myanmar, with ethnic minorities seeing construction as expanding military presence into their territory. Some analysts say Kachin rebels may be trying to hold the dams hostage in return for a share of the revenue from the projects.

The risk of fighting spreading in the heavily militarised border region is a worry for China, which is building oil and gas pipelines through its Southeast Asian neighbour to improve energy security.