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Refugees number 17,000 as more arrive

At least 17,000 refugees have now fled from Burma into Thailand to escape fighting between Karen rebels and the Burmese army.

The Thai government has asked the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to coordinate the relief effort, said the agency’s spokesperson, Kitty McKinsey. The majority of refugees are being sheltered in an area close to Mae Sot Airport in Tak province, northwest Thailand.

A number of NGOs including the International Rescue Committee, the International Organisation for Migration and the Jesuit Refugee Service are working together to manage the situation. They have erected enough tents and plastic sheeting to shelter all the refugees, said McKinsey.

“A lot of people have spontaneously come forward with donations. One man brought us 1,000 blankets,” she said. The UNHCR is not calling specifically for donations, McKinsey said, describing the situation as “in hand”.

A further 2,000 have sought refuge in Thailand’s Sangkhla Buri after fighting erupted yesterday in Burma’s eastern town of Payathonzu, around 150 miles south of Mae Sot. The UNHCR and Thai authorities are assessing their needs, McKinsey added.

She said that members of the public who wish to donate supplies should contact the UNHCR. “We’ve asked for people who are coming forward with donations to coordinate with us so that we make sure the donations go to the people who need them the most, because there are some pregnant women and women with very small babies.”

The refugees fled fighting which broke out in on Monday in Myawaddy in Karen state after a rogue faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) seized key government offices in the town. The splinter group, once loyal to the ruling junta, is led by renegade commander Na Kham Mwe, who refuses demands to join the Burmese army as a border guard force.

In Payathonzu, DKBA rebels razed several government buildings. Some reports claimed they were being assisted by ethnic Mon fighters and the Karen National Liberation Army.

A resident in Payathonzu said fighting restarted around 9.30am this morning. “We began to hear heavy weapons’ fire on the strip of hills at 9.35am and it went on for about seven minutes,” said the resident.

A report in the Bangkok Post today claimed fighting in Myawaddy had subsided. Third Army commander Wannatip Wongwai told the Post he expected the refugees to return home by the end of the day.

While McKinsey said the UNHCR was in regular contact with the Thai authorities, she was sceptical the refugees could be repatriated so soon. “We’ve seen these situations quite often and usually people do want to go home very quickly, but I think by the end of the day might be a little rushed,” she said.

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