Rebel soldiers push back Myanmar forces from strategic town in Kayin state

Karen rebels used heavy artillery to beat back a push by Myanmar junta forces to take Kayin state’s “peace town” of Lay Kay Kaw late Thursday and early Friday, with reports of heavy casualties among regime soldiers.

Lay Kay Kaw was established as symbol of peace in 2017 through a partnership between Japan’s Nippon Foundation, the Myanmar government and the rebel group Karen National Union (KNU) to house ethnic Karen refugees who were returning home after decades of fighting between the military and armed ethnic groups.

But in recent months, Lay Kay Kaw has been the site of fierce fighting among the junta troops and their opponents. More than 10,000 villagers have been displaced since clashes first broke out in the area on Dec. 15, 2021, as the sides pushed for advantage.

Myo Thura Ko Ko, a spokesman for the Cobra Column, which is affiliated with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an ethnic armed group, said Myanmar soldiers shelled the area before the assault.

“They used a variety of heavy weapons, and the shells fell like rain in the area,” he told RFA.

Fighting between the two sides began at about 3:30 a.m., with Myanmar soldiers retreating with heavy casualties after failing to capture a targeted hill, Myo Thura Ko Ko said. The number of soldiers wounded or killed is not known, however.

“We were close to the fighting zone, only about 100 yards away, so we saw the enemy being injured or killed,” he said. “But it was hard to estimate the exact number of casualties because of the darkness.”

KNLA and Cobra Column troops successfully defended the hills where they were stationed, and there were no casualties on their side, Myo Thura Ko Ko said.

While clearing the area Friday morning, rebel soldiers found an intact rocket-propelled grenade, two mobile phones and some military equipment left by Myanmar forces, he said.

Padoh Saw Tawney, the KNU’s foreign affairs officer, said junta forces attacked the rebels in the hills where the KNLA joint forces are based because they are in a strategic area near Lay Kay Kaw.

“Their main goal is to get control of the area,” he said. “They are desperate for territorial control, and they have tried a couple of times. They also tried it last night and didn’t succeed, but they will do it again.”

Myanmar soldiers launched air strikes on KNLA and anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) fighters in Lay Kay Kaw on April 10, suffering a loss of about 20 soldiers and a captured captain, according to the KNU. The air strikes damaged about 30 houses and a school in the town, residents told RFA in an earlier report.

Some officers and soldiers were injured during an ambush while clearing the town’s sixth ward, said a statement issued by the junta on Apr. 13. It said necessary security measures would be taken to ensure stability and peace in Lay Kay Kaw because the Karen rebels had violated nationwide cease-fire agreements.

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun could not be reached for comment on the fighting.

Civilians displaced by clashes are now sheltering along the banks of Thaungyin River near Myanmar’s border with Thailand. They said they were forced to flee to the Thai side as the fighting intensified but returned after it subsided because they were pushed back by Thai authorities.

Myet Hman, who is now living in the P’lotapho refugee camp near the river because of the fighting near Lay Kay Kaw, told RFA that he wanted the armed conflict to end as soon as possible so he and other locals could return to their homes.

“It would be better for us if the two sides killed each other and quickly found a resolution," he said. “That would be good. But now, armed men from this side or that side come into the village, stop for a while, and then engage in clashes. Meanwhile we villagers have had to flee our homes because of their fighting.”

Almost everything left in deserted houses in Lay Kay Kaw has been looted, he added.

Reported by RFA Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.