‘20,000 people are trapped in Mindat’

Myanmar’s army battled local militia fighters in the northwestern town of Mindat on Saturday,residents said, to try to quell a rebellion that has sprung upto oppose the junta which seized power in the Southeast Asiancountry in February.

The fighting in Mindat, Chin state, underlines the growingchaos in Myanmar as the junta struggles to impose its authorityin the face of daily protests, strikes and sabotage attacksafter overthrowing elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"We are running for our lives," one resident told Reutersfrom Mindat, a hill town just over 100 km (60 miles) from theborder with India.

"There are around 20,000 people trapped in town, most ofthem are kids, old people," the resident added. "My friend’sthree nieces were hit by shrapnel. They are not even teens.”

The junta imposed martial law in Mindat on Thursday and thenstepped up attacks on what it called "armed terrorists". Aspokesman did not answer calls requesting comment on thefighting on Saturday.

Fighters of the Chinland Defence Force retreated as militaryreinforcements advanced with artillery bombardments andhelicopter attacks, a member of a local administration set up bythe junta’s opponents told Reuters by phone.

There had been civilian casualties, he said, but could notconfirm the number.

Five civilians had been killed in Mindat in the past twodays, said Doctor Sasa, minister of international cooperation ina shadow National Unity Government set up to rival the junta.

Myanmar already had some two dozen ethnic armed groups, whohave waged war for decades against an army dominated by theBamar majority. The Chinland Defence Force was set up inresponse to the coup.

Reuters was unable to reach the group for comment onSaturday.

At least 788 people have been killed by the junta’s securityforces in crackdowns on protests against its rule, according toan advocacy group.

The military, which disputes that number, imposes tightrestrictions on media, information and the Internet. Reuterscannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told a news conference that 63people had been killed recently in what he described as various"terrorist attacks" by the administration’s opponents, appealingto people to inform on the attackers.

Anti-junta protests were held in the main city of Myanmarand many other towns on Saturday.

A poet who had criticised military rule had been soaked ingasoline and burned to death in the central town of Monywa onFriday, residents said. Sein Win was the third poet to be killedin the town, a stronghold of opposition to the junta.

The army took power alleging fraud in an election won by SuuKyi’s party in November. Its claims of irregularities wererejected by the electoral commission.

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