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Armed groups claim key Myanmar town

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An armed alliance of ethnic minority groups in Myanmar claimed late Friday to have captured a northern town notorious for online scam operations in another blow to the embattled junta.

The military is facing its biggest threat since seizing power in a 2021 coup after three armed ethnic groups – known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance – launched a sweeping October offensive in northern Shan state.

Since November people have been fleeing Laukkai town, located in a district bordering China that is run by a Myanmar military-aligned militia and notorious for gambling, prostitution and online scams run out of compounds staffed by thousands of people, many trafficked.

The alliance — made up of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — said the town was now under their control.

“All members from the Myanmar Army’s Military Operational Command in Laukkai were disarmed and Laukkai became a clean area where there are no more members of the Myanmar Army,” the alliance said in a statement.

It added that scores of junta soldiers, including some officers, had been captured and disarmed.

The junta has not commented.

TNLA Brigadier-General Tar Bhone Kyaw confirmed Saturday that the MNDAA had taken Laukkai.

“It is their land, they got it back now,” he told AFP.

“Their people will not have to stay anymore under the military regime,” he added.

Laukkai is the latest town to fall to the alliance alongside vital border hubs, damaging trade between China and Myanmar’s cash-strapped junta.

Leader Min Aung Hlaing made a name for himself in 2009 when, as a regional commander, he expelled the MNDAA from the town.

The military installed a militia that got rich producing drugs and selling a potent cocktail of gambling and sex to visitors from across the Chinese border.

While China is a major arms supplier and ally of the junta, relations have been strained in recent months over the junta’s failure to crack down on online scam operations that Beijing says target Chinese citizens.

On Saturday, state newspaper The Global New Light of Myanmar reported that Min Aung Hlaing had met with Chinese vice foreign minister Sun Weidong in the capital Naypyidaw.

The two “exchanged views on efforts to forge peace and stability in the border region between Myanmar and China,” it said.

The uptick in fighting near Laukkai prompted Beijing to ask citizens to leave the area last month.

Analysts say China maintains ties with ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar, some of whom share close ethnic and cultural links with China and use Chinese currency and phone networks in the territory they control.

The alliance’s offensive has galvanised other opponents of the junta and clashes have spread to the east and the west of Myanmar.

More than half a million people have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

Dozens of armed ethnic minority groups have battled Myanmar’s military since independence from Britain in 1948.

Some groups want greater autonomy while others simply want the right to run the lucrative trade in jade, drugs and timber in their territory.

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