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Myanmar rebels accuse military of air strikes

Yangon (AFP) - Rebels in Myanmar's war-torn northeastern border areas Thursday accused the nation's army of launching air attacks, the latest escalation of fighting that has claimed an estimated 20 lives this week.

A spokesman for the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), one of two major groups still locked in conflict with Myanmar's military, said two helicopter gunships attacked its troops in northern Shan state on Tuesday.

"In the evening of February 3rd, there was attack by gunships and some villagers were injured as well," major Tar Pan Hla told AFP, adding that "shooting came from two helicopters".

Clashes between Myanmar's army and ethnic minority rebel groups in Kachin and Shan states have escalated in recent weeks, undermining attempts to broker a nationwide ceasefire and end decades of bloodshed in border regions.

State media on Friday said five soldiers have been killed in Shan state and a four in Kachin state since Monday. A further 11 rebels fighters were also reported to have died.

Tar Pan Hla said nine Myanmar soldiers and one TNLA solider were killed Monday when clashes erupted as rebel fighters tried to destroy opium poppy fields.

The government and rebels often report different deaths tolls from clashes.

Myanmar's government, which replaced junta rule in 2011, has vowed to end the civil wars that have been flaring on and off since independence as a key part of its reforms.

But talks to secure a nationwide ceasefire have hit the buffers as long-held mistrust and continued fighting, particularly in Kachin, have overshadowed negotiations.

Kachin's conflict has raged since a 17-year ceasefire between rebels and the government splintered in 2011, driving almost 100,000 civilians from their homes.

The United Nations local representative on Thursday raised concerns about violence which flared last month around Kachin's Hpakant township, a jade-rich area near the border with China, trapping hundreds of civilians.

UN resident and humanitarian coordinator to Myanmar Renata Dessallien said some 1,000 civilians had been displaced and a further 1,000 affected by the fighting.

"I appeal to all parties to the conflict to allow the displaced people and other civilians who remain in close proximity to the area of conflict to be permitted to move to a more secure location," she said in a statement, calling for humanitarian access to the area.

Decades of bloody conflict in the Myanmar's borderlands have left a legacy of deep distrust of the military.

The violent deaths of two Kachin teachers last month in Shan state, allegedly at the hands of government soldiers, has also stoked anger among minorities. The army denies its troops were responsible.