Fresh fighting has erupted between Myanmar forces and an armed ethnic group in the remote northeast, forcing tens of thousands to flee across the border into China, activists and state media said on Friday.
China called on Myanmar to maintain stability in the border region, even as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians had fled the conflict.
"We also urge Myanmar to protect the security and legal rights of Chinese citizens in Myanmar," said the statement by spokeswoman Jiang Yu, on the ministry's Web site (www.fmprc.gov.cn)
The fighting could raise tension between China and Myanmar, whose military junta looks to Beijing as one of its few diplomatic backers and a crucial source of investment.
Thousands have fled this month from Kokang in Myanmar's Shan State after clashes there, which, according to a U.S.-based rights group, followed the deployment of troops in the area, home to a large number of ethnic Chinese.
The Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, citing information from local journalists in contact with the ethnic groups, said on Friday that armed clashes had taken place for the first time in 20 years, breaking a cease-fire.
Fighting flared on Thursday, "leading residents from the Myanmar side to panic and flood in large numbers into our territory," according to a news website run by the official Yunnan Daily (http://www.yunnan.cn) in China, bordering Myanmar.
Late Friday evening, the report was removed from the Web site.
Ethnic Chinese reportedly killed, homes looted
Kokang, where the trouble erupted, is home to many ethnic Chinese and Chinese nationals, many of whom run businesses and trade across the border.
A Chinese man in his 40s, who fled back to the Chinese border town of Nansan after running a grocery in Kokang for over 10 years, told Reuters at least 10 civilians have been killed.
"They were not willing to abandon all they had worked for in Myanmar in the past decade, and refused to flee, and then they were killed," said the man, surnamed Cao.
"I can still hear the thunder of guns today," Cao said, adding that all his property in Myanmar, which he valued at hundreds of thousands of yuan, had been robbed.
Refugees were being steered to seven collection points, the main one holding more than 5,000 people, to receive instant noodles, water and temporary housing, a local source said.
"This has been building for a long time. The army has not only increased tensions and caused distress with the ethnic groups, they're straining ties with China," Aung Zaw, editor of the Thai-based Irrawaddy magazine, told Reuters.
"Beijing's biggest concern is stability near the border, and it is not pleased about what's happening now."
He Shengda, an expert on the region at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said Myanmar's efforts to impose its control on the region risked sparking wider conflict.
"It would be no easy thing for the Myanmar government to rein in local power," he told the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper. "These local militia won't meekly abandon power, and a region that was peaceful may experience turmoil."
The UNHCR has offered its assistance, but has had no response from the Chinese government.
The Global Times said China had ordered stronger security along the border to prevent the conflict spilling into Yunnan.
U.S. Campaign for Burma told Reuters that 10 Myanmar police officers fleeing the fighting had accidentally crossed into China, where they were disarmed by the authorities and sent back.
Local reports said the Myanmar army had blocked roads and sporadic clashes were taking place. Reuters could not immediately verify the information and no mention of the clashes was made in Myanmar's state media.
Analysts and activists said the mobilization of troops was a move by the junta to force ethnic groups to join an army-run border force.
The regime wants the groups to form political parties to contest next year's election, the first in Myanmar in 20 years, but most do not trust the military government and feel they have nothing to gain from entering the process.
"The regime's aim is to disarm and control the ethnic rebels and neutralize their threat before the elections," Aung Zaw added.
The Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front, an alliance of four ethnic groups, and Chinese reports said the flashpoint came when troops attacked a factory used by ethnic groups to repair weapons on the suspicion it was being used to produce drugs.
Activists and Burmese-language radio broadcasts said the situation had been complicated by an attempted coup by a faction of the military arm of the ethnic alliance, which wanted to join the army's border force, under pressure from the Yangon regime.