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Myanmar holds peace talks with Kachin leaders in China

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's government held talks with top commanders of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebel group in China on Monday to try to rescue a faltering peace process and end one of the country's bloodiest ethnic conflicts.

The KIA is fighting for autonomy for Kachin state within a federal Myanmar, which successive governments of the ethnically diverse country have long rejected.

The two sides met for seven hours in Ruili, just inside Chinese territory and afterwards issued a vaguely worded joint statement that said further talks would be held in the next few weeks, aimed at setting up a communications channel and monitoring system, to enforce a ceasefire "as soon as possible".

It was unclear whether the meeting represented any real breakthrough and if any formal ceasefire deal had been signed.

Government-KIA talks have been held on 11 previous occasions, without progress, after fighting broke out anew in June 2011, when a 17-year truce collapsed. The number of casualties is unknown.

The talks come off the back of an escalation in a conflict in which the military has been accused by rights groups of using excessive force, discrediting a government lauded for broad reforms and initiating a nationwide peace drive.

Myanmar's military admitted in December to using jets for air strikes to thwart what it said was KIA aggression and witnesses say helicopter gunships were also deployed against the KIA, which is one of the strongest rebel armies in Myanmar and has its own munitions factories.

Truces with ethnic minority rebel groups, some of which have fought central governments since the end of British colonial rule in 1948, were among a series of reforms that led to the suspension last year of most Western sanctions on Myanmar. The KIA is the only group that has not agreed a formal ceasefire.

President Thein Sein has been praised for helping to strike ceasefires with various groups but the heavy fighting in Kachin state has raised doubts about his ability to control the military, which ruled Myanmar from 1962-2011.

Thein Sein, a retired general, made public calls for troops not to launch offensives, but fighting has not stopped, even after he announced a unilateral ceasefire in January and invited the KIA for talks.

The government sent its top negotiator, Aung Min, a minister in the office of the president, to Monday's meeting, which was also attended by the second-in-command of the KIA, General Gun Maw, said sources with knowledge of the talks.

The government wants a ceasefire deal signed before any long-term political agreement is discussed, but the KIA, which harbors deep distrust of the military, wants a concrete proposal to be made before it signs a truce.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official and two top-ranking members of the Karen National Union, which ended its six-decade conflict with the government last year, also attended the meeting as witnesses, the statement said.

(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Oliver Holmes)

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