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Refugees Escape to Thailand

January 17, 2000

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ More than 1,000 refugees fled to Thailand to escape border clashes between Myanmar government forces and ethnic Karen guerrillas, the Thai military said today.

Myanmar troops appeared ready to advance on God’s Army, a small rebel force led by two teen-age twins.

The rebel force, which has sheltered the student militants who in October laid siege to the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, is based at Ka Mar Pa Law, close to where clashes were reported at Mae Plia, opposite the western Thai province of Ratchaburi.

Thailand is reinforcing the border in case fighting or foreign troops spill over from Myanmar, said Col. Pairoj Thongma-eng, the ninth battalion deputy chief of staff at the Surasi Army Base in Kanchanaburi province, which monitors that part of the frontier.

He said 1,033 ethnic Karen villagers _ most of them women, children and old people _ crossed after fighting on Friday.

``People are coming across the border as they fear for their lives,″ said Pairoj. ``We have no report of casualties because it all happened inside Myanmar, but we can hear gunfire once in a while.″

The refugees were allowed over the Thai border on Saturday and were given shelter near the Huay Khok Mu Pass, 95 miles west of Bangkok, he said.

Several hundred more were staying on the other side of the border waiting to cross, Pairoj added.

No aid agencies had been given access to help the refugees as of early today.

The U.N. High Commission of Refugees said it was waiting for Thai authorities to complete ``security checks″ on the refugees before they would be allowed to see them.

Pairoj denied reports that Thai authorities had turned the refugees back on Thursday when they first tried to cross ahead of the advancing Myanmar government forces.

He described the clashes as ``seasonal fighting″ between Myanmar troops and ethnic Karen rebels, who have been battling for more autonomy from Yangon for more than 50 years. Most clashes happen in the November to May dry season, when it’s easier to move through the jungle.

Rebel forces have dwindled in recent years. The God’s Army, a ragtag group of 100 battled-hardened veteran fighters, former university students and children, maintain a pocket of resistance about a day’s march from the Thai border. The twin 12-year old boys who lead the army are believed by followers to have mystical powers that make them invulnerable in battle.

God’s Army took in the five student rebels who laid siege to Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok, after Thailand granted the students passage to the Thai-Myanmar border in return for the release of all the hostages the rebels had been holding at gunpoint.

The exchange angered Yangon’s military regime, which responded by closing Myanmar’s border with Thailand for two months and demanding Thailand arrest the rebels.

Thailand says that, if it arrests the rebels, it would charge them under Thai law and would not extradite them to Myanmar, also known as Burma.

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