MENG PENG, China - Hundreds of ethnic Chinese rebels from Myanmar have fled clashes in the country's northeast, surrendering their weapons and uniforms to Chinese border police and crossing to safety after several days of skirmishes with government troops.
Myanmar's military junta ended a news blackout about the clashes yesterday, saying three days of fighting had killed 26 government forces and at least eight rebels. It said the fighting had ended and "the region has now regained stability."
The United Nations and Chinese officials said up to 30,000 civilian refugees also have streamed into China to escape the fighting, which broke out last week after hundreds of Myanmar soldiers moved into Kokang, a mostly ethnic Chinese region run by a local militia.
The clashes have strained China's close relationship with Myanmar's military junta and come at a particularly sensitive time - ahead of Oct. 1 celebrations to mark 60 years of communist rule in China. Beijing has asked Myanmar to end the fighting.
The Kokang are an ethnic Han Chinese minority group who speak Chinese and, according to exiled Myanmar rights activists, have received support for decades from China because of their traditional ties to the Communist Party.
While China has been publicly supportive of Myanmar's military junta, the attack on the Kokang may be a way to signal to Beijing that the junta doesn't want to be pushed around.
Although this risks awakening the sleeping giant, Myanmar knows that China would not want to jeopardize its $1 billion stake in an oil pipeline project through Myanmar.
In an apparent move to win approval in the United States and counterbalance China's huge influence, Myanmar's military rulers in part justified the crackdown against the Kokang forces as a move against drug trafficking.
A U.S.-based Myanmar watchdog group said yesterday that most of the Kokang rebels had surrendered their arms to Chinese authorities upon entering the country, but it was not clear whether their leader, Peng Jiashen, was among them. They also gave over their green uniforms in exchange for blue cotton tops and pants.
"There was no way we would win," said one former rebel, Ri Chenchuan, as he shopped for new clothes in the few shops of Meng Peng, a mountain town about 12 miles from the border. Several former rebels said they arrived Saturday and slept in the open-air vegetable market.
A government announcement read aloud yesterday evening on state-run TV news broadcasts in Myanmar said the fighting was over but had left 26 junta soldiers and police dead and 47 wounded. It said eight bodies of Kokang rebels were found and 600 pieces of weapons seized.
There was no way to independently verify the figures.