Fighting continues at Burma border

Fighting between ethnic rebels and government troops continued for a third day today as activists warned that the violence which sparked a refugee exodus from Burma could escalate in the aftermath of contentious elections.

Fighting between ethnic rebels and government troops continued for a third day today as activists warned that the violence which sparked a refugee exodus from Burma could escalate in the aftermath of contentious elections.

Clashes at key points along the Thai-Burma border since Sunday have sent 20,000 panicked villagers into Thailand, which already shelters a quarter of a million ethnic minority refugees from brutal campaigns by the Burma army.

The exodus underlined Burma's vulnerability to unrest following the country's first election in two decades on Sunday, which was billed by the ruling junta as a key stage in its self-proclaimed road to democracy.

Its political opponents and Western nations have condemned the vote as unfair and repressive.

US president Barack Obama said yesterday it was unacceptable for Burma's government to "steal an election" and hold the people's aspirations hostage to the regime's greed and paranoia.

United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the voting was not inclusive enough and lacked transparency.

For a third day today, sporadic gunfire erupted in Myawaddy. Refugees told Thai officials, however, that government forces had retaken the Burma border town and that the fighting was likely to end, according to Thai governor Samard Loyfar of the adjacent Tak province.

"We have to evaluate the situation to see if the clashes have actually ended before sending them back," he said.

By today, around 20,000 refugees had fled into Thailand, said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. He said the government was working with humanitarian groups to look after them and remained concerned about the violence escalating.

"At the moment, officers along the border have beefed up security, especially at the spots where clashes occurred," Mr Panitan said.

Burma has been ruled by the military near-continuously since 1962 and rebellions by its ethnic minorities predate its independence from Britain in 1948.

Sunday's election was the first in Burma, also known as Myanmar, since a 1990 vote won by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, which was barred from taking power and boycotted the new polls.

The regime says the election heralds a transition to civilian rule but junta-backed candidates are virtually certain to dominate the new parliament.

Several human rights groups warned of possible civil war as ethnic groups are pressured by the government to accept a new constitution that offers them little autonomy. Several groups that field potent guerrilla armies refused to take part in the election.

"If the dictatorship goes ahead with plans to attack all armed groups refusing to surrender, today's fighting will be the equivalent of a first small skirmish," said the Burma Campaign UK.

In the heaviest clashes, Karen rebels reportedly seized a police station, post office and other buildings in Myawaddy. More fighting broke out further south for an hour yesterday at the Three Pagodas Pass, said Thai official Chamras Jungnoi. There was no word on any casualties.

State media and the Election Commission reported yesterday that 40 junta-backed candidates won their races, but a day after the polls closed, virtually no other official results - even on voter turnout - were available

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was certain to win an overwhelming number of seats. It fielded 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. The largest anti-government party, the National Democratic Force, contested just 164 spots.

The constitution sets aside 25% of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

The NDF said provisional returns it had collected showed it winning 15 seats.

NDF chief Khin Maung Swe accused the USDP of using every possible method to steal the vote, and said it was "sure to win 90% if they continue to cheat in such manner".

The NDF is led by breakaway members of the former National League for Democracy of detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ms Suu Kyi, who has been locked up in her Rangoon villa on and off since 1989. The party was disbanded this year after declining to register.

Ms Suu Kyi's term of house arrest is supposed to expire on Saturday, though the junta has kept silent over whether it will grant her freedom.

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