BANGKOK -- Government troops in Myanmar captured a strategic hilltop position outside the headquarters of ethnic Kachin rebels on Saturday, a photographer and another observer in the area reported. The takeover of the hilltop would be a significant advance in a long and bloody campaign near the border with China.
The intense fighting near the town of Laiza, the rebel base, comes amid increased foreign criticism of the military campaign and heightened tensions between the Burmese ethnic majority and minority groups, who make up one-third of the country's population.
A spokesman for the government, Ye Htut, said that he was not aware if the hilltop position, Hkayabum, had been taken but that government troops were "very close to the post and heavy fighting is ongoing."
In comments that are likely to anger Myanmar's minorities, the country's opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed admiration for the military during a visit to Hawaii over the weekend.
The comments by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, were made in the context of the military's role in helping secure independence from Britain. But given the timing, they are likely to further alienate ethnic minorities, who have criticized her for not speaking out forcefully against the Kachin campaign.
"I've often been criticized for saying that I'm fond of the Burmese Army, but I can't help it -- it's the truth," Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father was the founder of the modern Burmese Army, said Friday at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
The military ruled Myanmar for five decades, suppressing dissent and jailing its opponents, including Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. But a civilian government, led by a former general, Thein Sein, took power in 2011 and allowed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to run for the seats in Parliament that they now hold.
National reconciliation between the Burmese majority and many ethnic groups is seen as a crucial component of Myanmar's moves toward democracy under Mr. Thein Sein.
The fighting in Kachin has displaced tens of thousands of civilians in wintry conditions.
The military's reported capture of Hkayabum comes a week after the government announced a unilateral cease-fire in what some analysts have said was an effort to allay criticism by foreign governments over its air and ground campaign. That announcement coincided with a gathering of representatives from at least two dozen countries and international organizations, including the World Bank, in Myanmar's capital, where they discussed offering assistance to the country as it moves toward democracy.
The cease-fire never went into effect, some observers say, with the Myanmar Army continuing an intensive artillery assault on rebel positions. "It's been a nonstop barrage," said Ryan Roco, an American photographer documenting the fighting from the front lines. "It's raining mortars."
Khon Ja, a Kachin humanitarian worker in the area, said that it was possible rebel forces would retake the hilltop position and described the fighting as "cat and mouse."
The Myanmar government has repeatedly said that it has been acting in self-defense against the Kachin Independence Army, or K.I.A.
A statement by Myanmar's Foreign Ministry published in state newspapers on Saturday said that the rebels had "attacked military column with strong forces" immediately after the cease-fire was announced on Jan. 18 and that the military, or Tatmadaw, as it is known in Burmese, had no choice but to fight back.
"As K.I.A. troops have constantly launched such terrorist attacks, the Tatmadaw had to take military actions just to protect and safeguard the peace and tranquillity of the community and for the prevalence of law and order," the statement said.
Some observers have challenged that view, saying the military has advanced its positions even as it claims to be acting in self-defense.
The United States Embassy in Yangon said on Thursday that it was "deeply concerned" by what it called a continued government offensive.
"The United States strongly opposes the ongoing fighting, which has resulted in civilian casualties and undermined efforts to advance national reconciliation," a statement said.
Myanmar's Foreign Ministry criticized the American statement, saying the government was "endeavoring in good faith" to achieve a cease-fire.
The Foreign Ministry also said it "strongly objects" to the use of the word "Burma" in the release by the United States government. Using the country's former name, it said, "may affect mutual respect, mutual understanding and cooperation which have recently been restored between the two countries."
A junta changed the country's English name to Myanmar from Burma in the late 1980s, soon after the bloody suppression of a popular uprising against military rule. The violent context of the name change made many foreign governments, including the United States, reluctant to go along with it. But today most governments call the country Myanmar.
President Obama used the name Myanmar during his trip to the country late last year, though he also used the name Burma.
Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.