U.N. says 15,000 flee into China as Myanmar's army battles ethnic rebels

By Simon Lewis YANGON (Reuters) - Up to 15,000 people may have fled across Myanmar's border into China in the past month, a United Nations agency has said, as fighting between Myanmar's army and ethnic armed groups intensifies. Aid access to people affected by conflict in the northern states of Kachin and Shan "is getting worse, not better", Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar, said by email. The OCHA said in an update on Monday that, as well as the estimated 15,000 new refugees, another 2,400 people had been displaced internally in the northern part of Shan state since Nov. 20, when a coalition of four rebel armies attacked military and police outposts. The attacks disrupted trade across the border and China has expressed concern over stray shells and bullets landing in its territory. In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not immediately have any details about refugee numbers, but repeated a call for talks to resolve the fighting and ensure peace and stability on the border. Weeks of clashes and the new displacements have damaged Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's hopes of securing peace in the long-running conflicts in the mountainous border areas, a goal she has made her administration's top priority. Observers fear Suu Kyi's fledgling civilian administration is unable to rein in the army, which retains political power and is free from civilian oversight. "Humanitarian access to conflict areas in Kachin and Shan states is currently worse than at any point in the past few years," Peron said. "This has seriously affected the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide life-saving aid to tens of thousands of (internally displaced) and other conflict-affected people." Work by international aid agencies has also been restricted in Myanmar's northwest for more than two months. Government forces launched "clearance operations" there after armed men, believed to be from the oppressed Rohingya Muslim group, attacked border police. The army said it would step up operations in Shan state following the November attacks. A Myanmar police official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, told Reuters that government forces had clashed with armed groups in northern Shan at least 170 times in the past month. In a separate offensive to the north, government forces took control of a strategic hill close to the Kachin Independence Army's headquarters at Laiza on the Chinese border on Saturday, according to state media. Shells reportedly landed near a camp for the internally displaced just outside Laiza on Sunday, the OCHA said, citing unconfirmed reports that it could not verify independently. No casualties were reported but shelters were damaged and about 400 people had to be evacuated, it said. A Myanmar government spokesman was not immediately available for comment. (Additional reporting by Shwe Yee Saw Myint, and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait and Himani Sarkar)