A Daring Helicopter Rescue After Rebels Capture a Ferry in Myanmar

A Daring Helicopter Rescue After Rebels Capture a Ferry in Myanmar

MANDALAY, Myanmar — When the ferry pushed off from a dilapidated pier in western Myanmar, few of the passengers could have predicted how dangerous the journey would turn out.

Later on Saturday, along a riverbank dotted with mangroves, a rebel group abducted dozens of soldiers and government workers from the ferry at gunpoint. That drew a risky rescue attempt by army helicopters, which swooped in to try to free the hostages as their captors then spirited them away in three separate boats.

Gunfire erupted on both sides, and the army later said it had rescued 14 of the 58 hostages. The rebels said some were killed by helicopter fire, and they were keeping the survivors for “further investigation.”

The drama unfolded in a rural section of Rakhine State, a strip of land on the country’s west coast where Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a brutal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017.

The scale of the abduction suggests that the rebel group, The Arakan Army — a guerrilla force from the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group that makes up most of the state’s population — is using increasingly brazen tactics to press its demand for independence.

“The war in the region is getting bolder because of the Arakan Army,” Col. Win Zaw Oo, a spokesman for the Tatmadaw, said by telephone on Monday.

“As long as that army exists, there will be war,” he added. “So we have to eradicate it to restore peace to Rakhine.”

The drama on Saturday unfolded around 25 miles north of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and the two sides offered starkly different versions of what happened.

The Tatmadaw said on Sunday that the Arakan Army had captured Tatmadaw soldiers on a riverbank with small-arms fire, and that the insurgents later shot at a transport helicopter that had tried to rescue the soldiers, injuring a pilot with gunfire.

The Arakan Army, for its part, said that it had released old people, women and children from the ferry before taking the hostages away, and that it only took armed soldiers and police officers hostage because they had “pretended to be civilians.”

Khaing Thu Kha, a spokesman for the Arakan Army, said his colleagues had been unable to protect all of the hostages from the Tatmadaw attack along the May Yu River, and that the government’s helicopters had fired “indiscriminately” on the three escape boats, sinking two of them.

U Than Naing, a trader who lives in Rakhine State, said he is the uncle of a young man whom he feared may have died in the helicopter attack.

“The military said 14 have been rescued,” Mr. Than Naing said on Monday. “But they don’t say who they are and I fear that no one survived.”

The kidnapping took place on a ferry carrying passengers upriver from Sittwe. The Tatmadaw did not release the names of the rescued personnel, and it vowed to continue “a combined air and land” operation to rescue the remaining hostages. It said the kidnapped group included a mix of soldiers, police officers and government workers.

The Arakan Army has been fighting to create an independent state along the lines of the ancient Arakan kingdom that once ruled the area — and which fell to an invading Burmese army more than two centuries ago.

The insurgent group announced the ferry abduction on Sunday, two weeks after the Myanmar authorities said that 31 people, mostly firefighters, had been kidnapped from an express bus in Rakhine State. The armed men who conducted that operation wore soccer uniforms and were later identified by the Tatmadaw as members of the Arakan Army.

Rakhine State has captured global attention in recent years, mostly because of a Tatmadaw’s cleansing operation against the Rohingya Muslims that began in the summer of 2017 and forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh.

Many of those who did not flee are now stuck in internment camps in Rakhine State, and the government’s operation against the Rohingya has been compared to ethnic cleansing in places like Sarajevo and Darfur.

But many ethnic Rakhine people, who are Buddhist, say they have been ignored amid so much global hand-wringing over the suffering of the Muslim Rohingya.

The Arakan Army claims to have 7,000 soldiers and has killed hundreds of Myanmar soldiers since its founding a decade ago. The conflict is one of several being waged by the Tatmadaw against various ethnic groups across the country.

Late last year, the Arakan Army staged a weekslong insurgency that targeted police stations and displaced thousands of civilians in Rakhine State.

Since then, it has appeared to shift the focus of its attacks away from government installations and toward “softer” targets like the ferry and the highway where the recent abductions occurred, said U Ye Myo Hein, an expert on security issues in Myanmar. He said that posed a reputational risk for the insurgent group.

“In the long term, local residents, and Rakhine people, will suffer,” said Mr. Ye Myo Hein, the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Yangon, the country’s largest city.

The government is also taking a risk by using force in civilian areas of Rakhine State, where it has little support from the local population, said U Aung Thu Nyein, an analyst at the Institute for Strategy and Policy, another Yangon think tank. He said it should focus more on political dialogue.

“They say they are clearing insurgents, but I don’t think this is right way to solve the problem,” he said of Tatmadaw operations in Rakhine State. “They should try to win Rakhine people’s hearts.”

Saw Nang reported from Mandalay, Myanmar, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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