China says more than 20,000 from Myanmar seek refuge across border

A burnt hotel with broken windows is seen after fighters of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched an attack on March 6 on police, military, and government sites in Laukkai, Myanmar March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

BEIJING/YANGON (Reuters) - More than 20,000 people from Myanmar have flooded into border camps in neighboring China, seeking refuge from bitter fighting between ethnic groups and security forces in the country's north, China said on Thursday.

Thousands of people have crossed China's border in recent months to escape the conflict, which threatens Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's top goal of reaching peace with minorities.

This week, about 30 people were killed in an attack by ethnic Chinese insurgents in Laukkai, the capital of Myanmar's restive region of Kokang, about 800 km (500 miles) northeast of the commercial hub Yangon.

China is providing humanitarian assistance while taking steps to ensure peace and tranquillity in the border region, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

He reiterated a call for all sides involved to "exercise restraint and immediately cease fire" to keep clashes from escalating.

"China supports Myanmar's peace process and hopes all sides can use peaceful means to resolve their differences via dialogue and consultation," Geng told a regular news briefing.

Stray shells and bullets had fallen into China territory, injuring one Chinese person living there and causing some other damage, he added, but did not elaborate.

Suu Kyi's nearly one-year-old government is increasingly besieged by ethnic rebels, grappling with an alliance of militias in Myanmar's north and a new insurgency by Rohingyas rebelling against decades of persecution in the northwest.

In this week's attack, fighters of the predominantly ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched a pre-dawn raid on police, military and government sites.

Few people remain in Laukkai, which bore the brunt of the assault, residents told Reuters, except for security forces patrolling its deserted streets and outlying areas.

Red Cross official Saw Shwe Myint said about 60 Burmese migrant workers from sugar cane fields were still hiding in shelters in the city, waiting to be transferred out.

The humanitarian agency has already moved more than 1,000 workers back to safety in mainland Myanmar.

"I have been hearing gunfire and artillery fire every day," he said. "There's been no fighting after Monday, but clashes continue outside of the city."

A reporter who recently visited the area broadly corroborated this, saying fighting was most intense near the border with China. He saw trucks taking many soldiers to the front line.

MNDAA is a part of the Northern Alliance coalition of rebel groups comprising one of Myanmar's most powerful militias, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and two smaller groups caught in a stand-off with the military since 2015 clashes in the region.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Wa Lone in YANGON; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)