ZOKHAWTHAR, India (Reuters) - In the pre-dawn darkness on Monday, a 22-year-old Myanmar rebel fighter approached a hill-top military camp in remote Chin State with dozens of comrades for an assault that opened up another front in a mounting nationwide offensive against the junta.
"We cut the fencing wire," said Suan, who gave only his first name. "I was the first to enter. As soon as I entered, they started firing at us."
The battle at Khawmawi military camp, near Myanmar's porous border with India's Mizoram state, lasted almost 12 hours, according to Suan and five other rebel fighters and commanders.
Another military camp at Rihkhawdar was overrun by rebels within a few hours, marking a key victory for a grassroots insurgency that has brewed in Chin State since a 2021 coup when Myanmar's generals deposed a democratically elected government.
The ethnic Chin fighters said they used drones to drop bombs on the military bases, and junta soldiers fought back - especially fiercely at Khawmawi - occasionally firing mortars.
"When we entered the camp, most soldiers had already fled. But the ones that stayed, around 20 soldiers, fought intensely," said Lawma, 26, who like Suan, lay at a hospital in India's Champhai town after being wounded in the fighting.
At least nine Chin fighters were killed in the assault, along with six junta soldiers, two Chin rebels said, asking not to be named.
Suan and Lawma's account of the battle, which was corroborated by a rebel commander and six residents who witnessed some of the fighting, provides a rare ground-level insight into a widening assault against Myanmar's military junta.
A junta spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment.
In late October, three ethnic minority insurgent groups launched what they call "Operation 1027", from the date their offensive began, to take on junta troops in Shan State near Myanmar's border with China, winning control of several towns and more than 100 military outputs.
The Arakan Army, part of Three Brotherhood Alliance that launched the offensive, also opened a front against the military in western Rakhine State.
Insurgents are also beating back the military in Kayah State, which borders Thailand.
The offensive is the most serious challenge to the junta since the 2021 coup.
Zaw Min Tun, a junta spokesperson, said late on Wednesday the military was facing "heavy assaults" on multiple fronts. The junta describes the rebels as "terrorists".
HOMEMADE GUNS TO DRONES
Lalchaka, a resident of the Indian border town of Zokhawthar, near the overrun military camps, said he initially heard gunshots on Sunday evening but the firing intensified after rebels deployed drones to drop bombs at night.
At the beginning of their insurgency, Chin fighters, including university students who took up arms, struggled to find weapons, often using homemade guns to take on the military.
"At that time, from a military perspective, we were young," said Sui Khar, vice chairman of the Chin National Front, which participated in Monday's assault that had been planned weeks in advance after reconnaissance.
Across Myanmar, junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said insurgents had been using drones to drop hundreds of bombs on military positions.
One Chin fighter said their drones, which could carry up to 6 kg (13 pounds), were smuggled in from abroad, adding: "We use drones in most of our operations".
After the two military camps were overrun, 43 junta soldiers crossed over to India seeking shelter and most were subsequently flown back to Myanmar.
On Wednesday, two days after the battle, Indian paramilitary soldiers manned one side of the Zokhawthar border crossing.
On the other side stood armed Chin rebels, under a billowing Chin flag.
(Additional reporting by Krishn Kaushik; writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; editing by Robert Birsel)