By Thu Thu Aung
YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s army said it had rescued 14 people seized by insurgents in restive Rakhine state after Arakan Army rebels reported many dead in military attacks on boats carrying soldiers and police said it had taken prisoners.
The escalation in bloodshed is one of the biggest in the western state since fighting intensified early this year between the army and the rebels demanding greater autonomy for Rakhine.
“Of those abducted by the Arakan Army, 14 people have now been rescued,” the military said in a statement late on Sunday. “The military is continuing a combined air and land operation to rescue the remaining people abducted as soon as possible.”
The ethnic armed group on Saturday took prisoner more than 50 people, most belonging to the security forces. It said troops opened fire on Sunday on three vessels where the group was being held in Rathedaung township, sinking two and damaging one.
“Many were killed as there was no cover from incoming fire,” the rebel group said in a statement.
There was no independent account of casualties.
Local member of parliament Khin Saw Wai told Reuters fighting in Rathedaung had been too intense to go there on Sunday and many people had fled for neighbouring villagers after jet fighters flew overhead.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced across Rakhine state since clashes began in December, bringing fresh chaos to a region from which more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled a military crackdown in 2017.
The Rohingya situation is not directly linked to the Arakan Army’s fight to win greater autonomy for what was for centuries an independent kingdom.
The rebels draw on deep-seated historical resentment felt by some in Rakhine toward the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the central government, and their sense that Myanmar’s faltering transition to democracy has not brought enough benefits.
Sunday’s abduction was the second in recent weeks by the rebel group, which recruits from the mostly Buddhist local majority.
Suspected rebels disguised as sports players had boarded a bus in the state this month and took hostage dozens of firefighters and civilians.
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)