YANGON: Myanmar will "scrutinize" the identity of refugees in war-torn Kachin State to ensure ethnic insurgents do not receive humanitarian aid after weeks of fighting, a government spokesman said on Thursday.
One of Myanmar's strongest rebel groups, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has regularly clashed with government troops in the mountainous region bordering China and India since 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down.
The latest fighting has escalated since early April, driving more than 5,000 people from their homes, the United Nations said.
A UN human rights expert on Myanmar voiced deep concern on Tuesday, citing reports of the army using aerial bombings, heavy weapons and artillery fire on civilian areas.
The KIA and aid workers say the fighting is the most intense since the early 1960s, when Kachin guerrillas took up arms against the government in a bid for greater autonomy.
"We got information that shows KIA members might be among the refugees for humanitarian aid... we need to scrutinize whether members of the armed force are among them," government spokesman Zaw Htay said, adding that children, women and the elderly would get priority in receiving aid.
He did not elaborate on how the refugees will be screened.
Zaw Htay confirmed reports that about 2,000 people were trapped in a remote forest near the village of Aung Lawt.
Aid workers say they have had no access to humanitarian aid for more than three weeks. Fears of a delay in delivering aid should not compel the government to give unconditional humanitarian support to those trapped in Aung Lawt, said Zaw Htay.
"The security forces have concerns. We are trying our best to work out the two situations," he said.
KIA spokesman Colonel Naw Bu denied the government's allegation and said the screening would "make things more difficult" for the refugees.
Myanmar's military did not respond to requests for comment.
The fighting has put a spotlight on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's stuttering efforts to bring peace to the diverse, Buddhist-majority country that has seen near-perpetual war since its independence from Britain in 1949.
The conflict has sent more than 1,000 people fleeing to the village of Tanghpre, where a church has been distributing food and proving shelter for refugees, mostly from Kachin's eastern township of Injangyang.
"I'd like to urge both sides to make sure that the fighting will not spread into this area as there are more than 1,000 people taking shelter in this village," said Stephen Supma Sut Awng, a priest at the Queen of Heaven Catholic Church.
"My biggest concern for them is education for the children because there is no government facility in Tanghpre," he said.
Thousands of people rallied in Kachin this week to demand humanitarian access for villagers trapped by fighting.
Fighting between government forces and ethnic minority Kachin and other insurgents has been eclipsed in media coverage by the plight of nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since last August.