AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Friday 11 January 2013
Last update 11 January 2013 3:40 am
YANGON: Myanmar denied yesterday accusations it had used chemical weapons against ethnic minority rebels in the northern state of Kachin, where an escalating conflict has overshadowed wider political reforms. “Our military never uses chemical weapons and we have no intention to use them at all. I think the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) is accusing us wrongly,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut said.
The rebels on Wednesday told AFP that the army had stepped up its operations in recent days, allowing troops to take territory in a push towards the KIA stronghold of Laiza on the border with China.
“It is already three days (they have) used chemical weapons (and) they are able to occupy very important posts,” KIA spokesman James Lum Dau told AFP. He said there was an intense heat and soldiers “lost consciousness” when the shells exploded. “Around that area everybody suffers,” he added.
AFP was not able to verify the claims, which follow the recent use of air strikes by the government against the rebels in the resource-rich area.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down.
The rebels made a similar accusation that the army had used chemical weapons in late 2011.
The Kachin clashes, along with communal unrest in the western state of Rakhine, have marred optimism about dramatic political changes since Myanmar’s widely praised emergence from decades of army rule in early 2011.
The United States and the UN have voiced concern over the air raids.
Civil war has plagued parts of the country formerly known as Burma since it won independence from Britain in 1948.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian regime has reached tentative peace deals with other major ethnic rebel groups, but an agreement with the Kachin has proved elusive.
President Thein Sein, a former general, in December 2011 ordered an end to military offensives against the rebels and continued hostilities have led to doubts over his ability to control the powerful armed forces.
Ye Htut reiterated government assertions that the army was only firing “in self-defense”.
“We always open the door for peace,” he said.
The Pakistani and Afghan branches of the Taleban are allied but have focused their fights against different enemies.
US drone strikes have mainly focused on members of the Afghan Taleban and al-Qaida but have also occasionally targeted the Pakistani Taleban.
US missiles killed nine Pakistani Taleban fighters in South Waziristan on Jan. 6. A drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taleban, Baitullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan in August 2009.
Islamabad has been understandably less opposed to strikes that target the Pakistani Taleban since the group poses a direct threat to the government. It’s unclear whether the most recent strike was part of an effort to reduce government opposition to the drone program in the country.
The government has officially protested many recent strikes, but the response over the past two weeks has been muted. The response from Islamic hardliners, some of whom are believed to have links with the Pakistani military, has also been fairly quiet.
Many Pakistanis oppose the attacks because they believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation denied by the US Independent research indicates that a majority of those killed are militants, but civilian casualties also occur.
President Barack Obama ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan when he took office in 2009. There were 53 attacks that year, more than in the previous five years combined, according to the Long War Journal website, which tracks the strikes. Since Dec. 28, there have been seven drone attacks, according to an Associated Press count. The AP counts an attack that hits multiple adjacent targets as a single strike.
The annual tally of attacks peaked in 2010 at 117 but declined over the next two years as tension between the US and Pakistan increased, especially over the covert raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad in May 2011, and the accidental death of 24 Pakistani troops in US airstrikes in November 2011. There were 64 attacks in 2011 and 46 in 2012, according to the Long War Journal.
Relations between the US and Pakistan have slowly improved during the past six months after the US apologized for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers.
The bomb that exploded Thursday in a commercial area in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, was placed near a vehicle carrying paramilitary soldiers, said Akbar Hussain Durrani, the provincial interior secretary. The bomb was concealed in a bag that was spotted by a local resident. But before the soldiers could react, it was detonated by remote control, said Durrani.
The blast killed 12 people and wounded 47 others, including seven soldiers, said senior police officer Hamid Shakeel. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Baluchistan has experienced a decades-long insurgency by nationalists who demand greater autonomy and a larger share of the province’s natural resources. It is also home to many Islamist militants, including the Taleban.
Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Shirin Zada in Mingora, Pakistan, contributed to this report.