Myanmar’s military staged a dramatic helicopter attack and rescue on Arakan Army (AA) motorboats that were carrying 58 passengers abducted from a large passenger boat in strife-torn Rakhine state over the weekend, freeing 14 passengers, government and army spokesmen said.
The incident started on Oct. 26, when AA fighters fired guns to stop a passenger boat called the Shwe Nadi as it made its way from the Rakhine state capital Sittwe to Buthidaung in the north, forcing it to dock on the banks of the Mayu river.
The AA fighters then offloaded 58 passengers into three motorboats, leaving some civilians, women and elderly passengers on the boat, which was allowed to proceed upriver while to motorboats sped away on Yay Poke creek.
The Myanmar Ministry of Information said on Sunday the 58 abductees included 14 army soldiers, 28 policemen, two employees from the Prison Department and 13 civilians.
According to the army, within three hours, Myanmar military helicopters found the motorboats and took ground fire that injured one pilot before returning fire and conducting a search for the abductees.
They found 14 of the abducted passengers who had escaped during the exchange of fire and on Monday, a 15th abductee was found.
“Police sergeant Sai Naing Aung was found alive with hands tied behind his back in Yay Poke Creek,” said Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, an army spokesman. “So far, we have 15 survivors.”
“According to his account, he and four other fellow detainees had their hands tied behind their backs and told to kneel down by the creek. Then, the captors shot them and pushed them into the creek. They did it before our military helicopter had fired warning shots,” the spokesman said.
The military said abductees were killed in the exchange of gunfire between military helicopters and the AA boats and ground forces, while others escaped and all three AA motorboats were sunk.
The AA, which is fighting the government army for greater autonomy in Rakhine state in a conflict that has intensified throughout 2019, described Saturday’s encounter differently.
The AA said on Sunday that its fighters, working on information that military personnel disguised as the civilians were on the Shwe Nadi, stopped the passenger boat at for inspections and removed those they thought were army personnel in order to take them away by motorboat.
Around mid-day, three military helicopters flew over and started firing rockets and ‘machine guns’ indiscriminately, killing some AA fighters and detainees, sinking two motorboats and damaging the third motorboat while the detainees ran away.
The three military helicopters continued firing at the surrounding area for more than five hours, killing more AA members and detainees.
The AA said it was unable to confirm the number of deaths and it blame the military for killing the detainees with indiscriminate gunfire.
“We never commit indiscriminate killing of our detainees,” AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He said the detainees included high ranking officers whose presence in the region the army wanted to hide.
“We concluded that the military wants to kill them all, as they fear the detained officers would expose the military’s war crimes. We learned that they bombed to eliminate them all,” said Khine Thukha.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Military Information Committee told RFA that the AA had killed some of the abductees before the helicopter started shooting and then accused the military of killing them.
200 trapped in village
Local villagers from near the scene of the fighting said government troops surrounded Yay Poke village and fired shots, injuring two villagers, and had detained 13 elderly residents on the assumption they had been hosting AA soldiers.
“My son was hit around 2 p.m. and we tried to reach all contacts. We didn’t get help from anyone else,” said Maung Soe Chey, father of wounded villager Maung Maung Chey. A doctor from Rathedaung was treating his son, he added.
“Around 200 people are trapped in the village,” he said.
The military denied detaining or shooting any of the Yay Poke villagers.
“Both sides shouldn’t have committed these acts. They are just retaliating against one another, holding eye-for-an-eye attitudes. It is totally wrong and their actions are not in line with international standards for armed conflicts,” said political analyst Than Soe Naing.
In a separate case, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said on Monday that the ethnic army had freed 12 people -- three drivers and nine highway laborers -- detained from an express bus near Myauk U on Oct. 11 and would soon release 18 firefighters it had seized at that time.
“We found that they are genuine civilians and we released them nicely. They are all Bamar people. Since they have nothing to do with the military, we sent them back safely and courteously,” he said.
“We have still detained the rest of the firefighters. Depending on their safety, we will release them soon,” said Khine Thukha.
Mother of firefighter cadet Win Moe Htike said she is hoping for the release of her son.
“I haven’t heard any news about him yet. An acquaintance called me around 9:00 a.m. to tell me he was released. Now, I am listening to the news and keeping the phone beside me. I am so concerned,” she told RFA.
The detained firefighters were returning home from their training academy in Mandalay Region on October 11.
The armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the AA has killed at least 90 civilians and displaced tens of thousands of civilians in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state since hostilities escalated in late 2018.
Reported by Wai Yan Moe Myint and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Aung Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written by Paul Eckert.