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Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK

World: South Asia

Burmese refugees flee to India

By Subir Bhaumik in Calcutta

Officials in India's north-eastern state of Nagaland say nearly 1,000 refugees have crossed into the state from Burma in the last week.

They say the Naga refugees have fled into India from eight villages in Burma's Sagaing Division after the Burmese army raided their villages.

The Nagas are a small minority in Sagaing - an area which is hilly and full of thick jungle, and where the Burmese administration is barely present and even the army is only occassionally seen during counter-insurgency operations .

There are an estimated 20,000 Naga tribals living in Burma.

From the beginning of their independence struggle against India 50 years ago, the Naga rebels have used Sagaing as a base area.

The Burmese army occassionally undertakes operations against these bases or even raids the Naga villages to maintain its grip over the area.

Naga church leaders say that a Burmese army regiment has been attacking Naga villages in western Sagaing.

The church leaders allege that the Burmese soldiers beat up village elders, forced young boys to act as their porters and even raped some young girls.

They say that the soldiers also forcibly carried away the rice stocks of entire villages - leaving the Nagas with no option but to flee into India to escape starvation.

Police in India say the refugees are in the Tuensang district of Nagaland, and have been given shelter in the villages by their ethnic cousins.

No refugee camps have been set up.

But officials in Tuensang say that if more refugees come they might have to set up camps.

The refugees have denied any engaging in guerrilla activity in Sagaing and have blamed the Burmese army for what they described as unprovoked attacks.

However, their assertions could not be verified from an independent source.

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