The Arakan Army on Thursday released 52 ethnic Khumi villagers from western Myanmar’s Chin state detained for six months in a border camp after soldiers took them from their community following a battle with government troops, the AA and a local pastor said.
At the time of the clash in early February, a Khumi organization in the region demanded the release of the villagers whom it said had been abducted by the AA.
But the AA denied taking take the civilians by force, saying it had helped them flee to safety at their own request after the fighting near Kintalin village in Chin’s Paletwa township ended.
The AA, which seeks greater autonomy in neighboring Rakhine state, said it released the Khumi civilians and sent them to community leaders in Ohnthee Wa village so they could be taken to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Meezar.
Pastor Moses from the camp told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he was informed about the villagers’ arrival in Ohnthee Wa, but that he had not yet met them.
“They said they have come back, but they are still in Ohnthee Wa village,” he said. “They said that all have been released. They will stay in Meezar where the IDP camp is.”
Local residents disagreed with the AA’s version of events, saying that after its soldiers arrived in Kintalin village, they ordered the villagers to gather at a church and forced them to leave when they told them that the Myanmar military would soon bomb the community.
AA soldiers initially had taken away 54 villagers, but two of them escaped and said that the others were being held against their will in an AA camp close to Myanmar’s borders with India and Bangladesh, and that they lacked an adequate food supply.
RFA was unable to reach AA spokesman Thukha for comment on the release of the villagers.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that 128 of the total 140 civilians detained by the AA during the armed conflict, which raged anew in late 2018, are still being held.
He said that the AA had arrested road and dam construction workers and noted reports that its soldiers had detained five civilians from Saparhtar village in Rakhine’s Minbya township.
In early April, the AA abducted 13 employees of the Hsu Htoo San Construction Co., which is building a section of the Paletwa-Mizoram roadway in Paletwa township to connect Myanmar and India.
The AA accused the workers of being former military intelligence agents who were gathering information about its operations for the Myanmar Army, though the government military denied it.
The AA later released five of the workers, including two women.
The Myanmar military has also detained civilians in conflict zones in the country’s western regions on suspicion of having ties to the AA.
According to RFA's reporting, at least 15 civilians have died while in military or police custody or detention since March 2019 during the conflict.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.