More than 20,000 Myanmar refugees enter China

Beijing - More than 20,000 Myanmar refugees have entered China, fleeing areas along the border after violent clashes broke out between the south east Asian country's army and ethnic rebels this week, Beijing said Thursday.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said at a regular press briefing on Thursday that the Myanmar residents are being offered humanitarian assistance "to temporarily avoid the war".

The latest clashes are in northeastern Shan state, which has seen repeated bouts of heavy fighting between the army and a band of well-armed ethnic minority militias since November, undercutting a government peace bid.

The fighting has raised fears of a repeat of 2015, when the displaced flooded across the border into China, raising tensions with Beijing.

China has called for an immediate ceasefire, urging restraint to "prevent further escalation and take practical and effective measures to restore peace and stability to the border areas," Geng told reporters.

He said bullets and artillery shells have entered Chinese territory, injuring one Chinese resident and damaging some property.

At least 36 people were killed after Monday's audacious pre-dawn raid by the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) on police and military posts at Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region.

Many rebel groups in the border region share close cultural ties with China, speaking Chinese dialects and using the country's yuan currency.

Observers believe Beijing holds significant sway over the ethnic fighters and has a key role to play in peace talks that Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to revive since coming to power in 2015.

The next round of negotiations is slated for March, but the date has slipped several times.

Late on Tuesday the MNDAA said they attacked Laukkai to protest "continued military pressure" on the Northern Alliance, a coalition of four ethnic minority armies which have yet to join national peace talks.

The rebels conceded in their statement that they have temporarily retreated due to the army pushback.