Myanmar announces end to strikes on Kachin rebels
Myanmar announced on Friday an end to a military offensive against ethnic minority rebels in the northern state of Kachin in the face of growing international concern.
The pledge came hours after the country's fledgling parliament passed a motion calling for a halt to the fighting, which has left dozens reported dead and marred optimism about the country's political reforms.
"The commander in chief reaffirmed that the Tatmadaw (military) will follow the command of the president not to carry out offensive attacks except in self-defence," the information ministry said in a statement.
The halt is to take effect from 6.00am Saturday (2330 GMT Friday).
"But in an armed conflict, both sides need to halt attacks to cool tensions," the statement added, accusing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of launching dozens of attacks on roads and the rail network.
The conflict between the government troops and the KIA had escalated recently with the use of air strikes by the military, prompting the United States and the UN to voice concern.
The exact number of casualties is unknown, but the government said Friday that 35 soldiers had been killed and 190 injured in a series of ambushes by the rebels since 2011, in the first official death toll for the military's side.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in the state since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has reached tentative ceasefires with a number of major ethnic rebel groups since taking power in early 2011, but several rounds of talks with Kachin rebels have shown little progress.
President Thein Sein's reformist government said a year ago it had ordered the military to halt offensives against ethnic minority rebels, but the Kachin conflict continued, raising doubts about his control over the armed forces.
The government has said the recent strikes aimed to regain control of an area about seven miles (11 kilometres) from the KIA headquarters in Laiza on the Chinese border in order to prevent rebel attacks on transport routes and government troops.
"The KIA also needs to stop attacking and blocking the highways and railways to show sympathy for the people suffering because of the renewed fighting in Kachin State," the government statement said.
Earlier Friday a proposal to halt the clashes and resume ceasefire talks was passed by a voice vote in the lower chamber of parliament, house speaker Shwe Mann announced.
"To implement the peace process, the proposal was approved to urge the responsible organisations and the government to start peace dialogue as soon as possible after immediately stopping the fighting between the KIO/KIA and government troops," said Shwe Mann, a former general.
It was unclear whether the halt later announced by the government was in direct response to the motion, which easily cleared a legislature dominated by the military and its political allies.
"We have to watch whether they really stop fighting there on the ground," said Kachin MP Doibu of the Unity and Democracy Party, who submitted the motion.
"Only after the fighting stops can we continue political dialogue," she told AFP.
The KIA said on Monday that three civilians were killed in an artillery attack by the military on its stronghold town of Laiza near the border with China. The government denied the allegations.
The KIO accuses the government of pushing dialogue only on the basis of a ceasefire and troop withdrawals, neglecting to address longstanding demands for greater political rights.