Myanmar’s ethnic rebel Arakan Army on Tuesday released 25 of 58 captives abducted on Saturday from a passenger vessel traveling on a river in Rakhine state, calling the freed people “real civilians.”
Those released were handed over to the administrator of Ngwe Taung village in Rakhine’s Buthidaung township, Arakan Army (AA) spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“During the Shwe Nadi incident, we separated the soldiers from the civilian passengers and moved them onto smaller boats,” Khine Thukha said, using the name of the ferry that AA troops stopped on Oct. 26 as it traveled upriver from the state capital Sittwe to Buthidaung.
“When three military helicopters attacked us, we had to rescue the survivors. We have now released 25 who we could confirm were real civilians, and we have returned them safely to the village administrator at the Ngwe Taung village monastery,” he said.
The freed abductees were given back their mobile phones and other belongings, along with a “travel allowance” of 15,000 kyat [U.S. $9.90] each, Khine Thukha said.
Local MPs said four of the 25 have already returned home, while the remaining 21 are being looked after by workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, local humanitarian groups, and Arakan National Party MPs from Buthidaung township.
Speaking to RFA, Buthidaung township MP Tun Aung Thein said that officers from the No. 3 Border Police Force are now questioning the 21 returnees who have not already gone home on their own.
“They say they need to investigate them as they are witnesses, and since we are not yet sure we can trust them, we are monitoring their activities,” he said.
Meanwhile, family members gathered outside police offices to wait for their loved ones’ release.
“I don’t know why they are questioning him,” one family member said to RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He’s in good health, but a bit thinner than before. I think that he couldn’t eat, drink, or sleep very well [in captivity] because he was so afraid. We are now waiting outside the police station to welcome him back,” he said.
Attempts to reach the No. 3 Border Police Force for comment were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
Government sources meanwhile gave conflicting accounts of the status of the 58 persons abducted when the AA seized their vessel on Oct. 26, saying in a statement Tuesday that only 13 of those taken captive were civilians, while 14 were members of the country’s military, 29 were police officers, and two were prison employees.
Of the 58 people abducted, 40 have now been freed, with the fate of the remaining 18 still unknown.
Speaking to RFA, Khine Thukha said the AA still holds other abductees, but refused to give their number, citing security concerns.
Meanwhile, Myanmer military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said government troops are still searching for survivors of the military’s Oct. 26 helicopter assault on the vessels used by the AA to carry their captives away.
“We looked for survivors for the next two or three days after it happened,” Zaw Min Tun. “And as we were conducting our search, we had two more armed engagements.”
“We haven’t found any more survivors, and as far as we know, [the AA] have now moved to the east of Kyauktaw village,” he said.
The armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the AA, which is fighting for greater autonomy in Rakhine state, 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 Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.