YANGON: Myanmar ethnic minority fighters said Wednesday they had seized a town along a key trade highway to China following days of clashes, in another blow to the military.

Northern Shan state has been rocked by fighting since late last month, when an alliance of ethnic armed groups renewed an offensive against the military along the highway to China's Yunnan province.

The clashes have shredded a Beijing-brokered truce that in January halted an offensive by the alliance of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

The town of Naungcho “is totally ours”, General Tar Bhone Kyaw of the TNLA told AFP.

Earlier Wednesday, a military source told AFP that ethnic minority fighters were in control of “most” of the town.

AFP was unable to reach a junta spokesman for comment.

Naungcho is around 50 kilometres (30 miles) down the highway from the former British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, home to the military's elite officer training academy.

Another road from the town leads to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state.

TNLA fighters were also inside the town of Lashio, home to the junta's northeastern command, the TNLA said.

Its forces had briefly captured a battallion command near the city but had been forced to retreat when the military launched air strikes, said Tar Bhone Kyaw.

On Tuesday the junta said 18 civilians in Lashio had been killed and 24 wounded in shelling, rocket and drone attacks by the alliance.

The military has carried out several air strikes around the town of about 150,000 people, according to residents.

Fleeing in convoys

On Tuesday Lashio residents piled into cars weighed down with belongings and navigated potholed and monsoon-soaked dirt roads in a bid to flee the fighting, AFP images showed.

On Monday around 45 people crowded onto a boat to be taken across a river swollen by the monsoon rains.

Myanmar's borderlands are home to myriad ethnic armed groups who have battled the military since independence from Britain in 1948 for autonomy and control of lucrative resources.

Some have given shelter and training to newer “People’s Defence Forces” (PDFs) that have sprung up to battle the military after it ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in 2021.

In recent days, PDF fighters have battled junta forces in Madaya township, around an hour north of second city Mandalay.

Amid the renewed fighting last week, top junta general Soe Win travelled to China to discuss security cooperation along their shared border.

China is a major ally and arms supplier to the junta, but analysts say Beijing also maintains ties with Myanmar's armed ethnic groups holding territory near its border.