Border shut after mortar attack and heavy fighting

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The Independent Online

Thailand closed a key border checkpoint today and sent troop reinforcements following heavy fighting with Myanmar during which the Mae Sai border town came under mortar attack.

Thailand closed a key border checkpoint today and sent troop reinforcements following heavy fighting with Myanmar during which the Mae Sai border town came under mortar attack.

Col Wanthip Wongwai of Thailand's Pha Muang border task force said that Myanmar sent "heavy reinforcements into the area" and "we are also doing that to ensure the security and sovereignty of the nation."

"The situation has become more tense," he said.

The fighting, the worst between the two countries in several years, presents the first diplomatic crisis to new Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who said yesterday he would visit Myanmar as soon as possible in a bid to improve relations.

The Thai army said hundreds of troops were deployed along a mountainous stretch of the frontier. Two armored personnel carriers and dozens of armed troops were posted at the checkpoint between Mae Sai and the Myanmar town of Tachilek.

The checkpoint, one of three principal crossing points along the more than 1,250 mile-long Thai-Myanmar frontier, was closed Sunday when the fighting started. It reopened yesterday when Thai and Myanmar forces agreed on a cease-fire, but was closed again early today.

Two women were killed and seven other civilians injured by Myanmar mortar shells that landed Sunday at Mae Sai, at the northernmost tip of Thailand, about 440 miles from Bangkok. There were no military casualties.

The fighting started near Tachilek between Myanmar government forces and anti-government Shan rebels and spilled into Thailand as Myanmar forces tried to take over vantage points in Thai soil to target the rebels.

Myanmar accuses Thailand of helping the Shan rebels, who have been fighting for four decades for independence from Myanmar. Thailand denies helping the rebels.

Yesterday, Thailand said it launched a heavy artillery assault on Myanmar troops which had taken over the Pang Noon hilltop base on Thai soil about 25 miles west of Mae Sai Myammar contests Thailand's claim to Pang Noon.

Wanthip, the border force official, estimated about 20 Myanmar soldiers were killed and 100 were injured.

In Yangon, Col Kyaw Thein, a senior Myanmar intelligence officer, said 14 Myanmar soldiers and three civilians were killed while 51 soldiers and 15 civilians were wounded during skirmishes at the border over the past week. Two other soldiers were missing. Four rebels had been killed, he said.

Thailand formally protested to Myanmar Monday for intruding on its territory and demanded compensation for casualties and damage. Myanmar denied it had fired mortars on Mae Sai and said it had no intention of encroaching on Thai soil.

"Several dead bodies of Myanmar soldiers were found in our outpost (at Pang Noon) which proved that they intentionally violated our sovereignty," said Maj Gen Jamlong Phothong, deputy commander of Thailand's Third Army that oversees northern Thailand.

"I talked with the Myanmar field commander on the phone and urged them to withdraw from our position and ordered the bombardment when the intruders ignored our demand," Jamlong told the AP.

Relations between Myanmar and Thailand are generally cordial, although Myanmar often accuses Thailand of supporting or offering sanctuary to various anti-government Myanmar guerrillas that are based along the Thai border, such as the Shan rebels.

But bilateral ties have been strained in recent years by the flood of drugs smuggled into Thailand from eastern Myanmar. A major producer is the United Wa State Army, which enjoys virtual autonomy in Myanmar's eastern border after reaching a peace deal with the regime.

Jamlong accused Myanmar troops of allowing the UWSA to produce heroin and methamphetamines, saying the Thai army had seized tons of drugs along the border of northern Thailand.