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    Burmese Rebels Claim to Have Retaken Vital Outpost

    Soldiers of the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) patrol in downtown Laiza, northeastern Burma, January 4, 2013. Soldiers of the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) patrol in downtown Laiza, northeastern Burma, January 4, 2013.
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    Soldiers of the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) patrol in downtown Laiza, northeastern Burma, January 4, 2013.
    Soldiers of the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) patrol in downtown Laiza, northeastern Burma, January 4, 2013.
    Ron Corben
    Burmese rebels facing intense fighting say they have retaken a key outpost near the Kachin-rebel headquarters.   The rebel Kachin Independence Army says it has reclaimed the northern Burma position after briefly retreating.

    Weekend fighting around the Hka Ya Bhum mountain post intensified with up to 3,000 Burmese troops attacking the lookout, considered a last line of defense protecting the rebel headquarters in Laiza, near the border with China.  The rebel outpost reportedly fell in the face of heavy artillery and air attack from government forces.

    But Kachin Independence Army spokesman Colonel James Lum Dau claimed in a statement to VOA late Sunday that rebel forces had retaken the post.  Information in the rebel statement could not be independently confirmed.

    Rights groups say in addition to the Laiza's 20,000 population, there are an estimated 20,000 internally displaced people living nearby.

    Recent fighting in northern Kachin state has included government use of Russian-made Mi-35 gunship helicopters and fighter aircraft against Kachin positions.  There is no confirmed death toll.

    The fighting that began in mid-2011 ended a 17-year cease-fire agreement between Burma’s army and Kachin forces.

    A defense analyst at Australia’s New University of New South Wales, Carl Thayer, says Burma’s army is pressing for a new cease-fire with the Kachin forces.

    “The strategy is obviously to gain an upper hand over the Kachin ," Thayer said. "If the momentum is swinging and they can push and seize the capital, then the cease-fire comes and they have it in place - the attempt to get a cease-fire would cause the military to push even harder because it would solidify the gains it has got on the ground.”

    A Kachin studies' senior researcher at Estonia’s Tallinn University, Karin Dean, says the rebels may be facing a “critical moment” in the struggle for autonomy.

    “The conflict has escalated, there is even more violence than there was months ago," Dean said. "That started with the bombing just around Christmas time.  Maybe it is a critical moment.  Of course the government has the power and equipment, well equipped to perhaps take over Laiza and crush the Kachin positions.  But it will not be able to stop the violence.  The KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] may have another tactic on the ground.  It cannot really crush the resistance. There will be political resistance."

    Dean says central government control would undermine economic gains made during the cease-fire years.  The Kachin-controlled economy benefited by trade and business ties with China and gains in the teaching of the Kachin language at schools.

    U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman Stewart Davies says international organizations are calling for access to conflict areas amid fears for the welfare of tens of thousands of internally displaced in Kachin state.

    “More than ever now we are concerned about civilians caught in this conflict and really to try to reiterate that we have got a concern for 75,000 people already and has since June of last year," Davies said. "So our key message is we continue to advocate government to get access - we need access first and then we can follow up.”

    Analysts say Burma’s government is seeking to extend control over a region rich in resources.  Several countries, including the United States, and the United Nations have raised concerns over the rising violence.  But Burma’s state-controlled media challenged the criticism, accusing the Kachin of terrorist actions and atrocities.

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