Burmese army accused of murder and rape

As Burma prepares for by-elections, a new report accuses the army of the rape, torture and murder of ethnic people, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying that the abuse of civilians has deepened since fighting against ethnic Kachin rebels in the country's north-east was triggered last year after a 17-year ceasefire. Up to 75,000 people have been forced from their homes.

Troops have blocked humanitarian aid and attacked innocent people, burning down entire villages, abducting women and forcing children as young as 14 to become porters. "The Burmese army is committing unchecked abuses in Kachin state while the government blocks humanitarian aid to those most in need," HRW's Elaine Pearson said. "Both the army and Kachin rebels need to act to prevent a bad situation for civilians from getting even worse."

The fighting is one of a number of wars with ethnic groups in Burma that have rumbled on for decades with devastating consequences.

Western countries, including Britain, have stressed that finding a peaceful solution to ethnic conflicts is a requirement for the lifting of economic sanctions, something the Burmese authorities are very keen to achieve. When British Foreign Secretary William Hague met with senior Burmese leaders earlier this year, he reportedly highlighted the need to achieve reconciliation.

Talks between the Kachin fighters and government peace negotiators have been held on seven occasions since President Thein Sein issued a call for dialogue last August to find "everlasting peace", but they have been fruitless. Reuters reported that according to the rebels, the conflict has now reached the stage of "total annihilation".