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Refugees Escape to Thailand

January 17, 2000

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Fighting between Myanmar troops and ethnic Karen rebels has sent 1,000 refugees fleeing into Thailand, Thai officials said Monday.

The government troops appeared to be closing in on the headquarters of God’s Army, a small armed group led by 12-year-old twin boys.

Officials in Myanmar, also known as Burma, have not confirmed the fighting, which reportedly began over the weekend.

Rebel forces have dwindled in recent years. God’s Army, a ragtag group of around 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 their followers to have mystical powers that make them invulnerable in battle.

God’s Army is based at Ka Mar Pa Law, close to where the clashes were reported at Mae Plia in Myanmar, opposite the western Thai province of Ratchaburi.

A Myanmar government spokesman, Lt. Col. Hla Min, told journalists on Saturday said the government had no need to attack the Karen forces because they have mostly retreated into refugee camps in Thailand.

Thailand is reinforcing the border in case fighting or foreign troops spill over from Myanmar, said Col. Pairoj Thongma-eng, the chief of staff for Thailand’s 9th Battalion, which monitors that part of the border.

He said that 1,033 ethnic Karen villagers, most of them women, children and old people, had crossed the border since Saturday.

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

The refugees were given shelter near Huay Khok Mu Pass, about 100 miles west of Bangkok, he said.

Several hundred more were staying on the other side of the border waiting to cross, Pairoj added. He denied reports that Thai authorities had turned the refugees back on Thursday when they first tried to cross.

Pairoj described the clashes as ``seasonal fighting″ between Myanmar troops and ethnic Karen rebels, which 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.

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