Powerful Ethnic Armed Group In Western Myanmar Claims To Capture Base And Hundreds Of Soldiers

BANGKOK (AP) — A powerful ethnic minority armed group battling Myanmar's army in the country's west claimed Monday to have taken hundreds of government soldiers prisoner when it captured a major command post.

The Arakan Army, the well-trained and well-armed military wing of the Rakhine ethnic minority movement, has been on the offensive against army outposts in the western state of Rakhine — its home ground — for about six months.

The group said in a video statement posted on the Telegram messaging app that soldiers belonging to the military government’s Operational Command No. 15 headquarters in Rakhine’s Buthidaung township surrendered after a siege.

Buthidaung is about 385 kilometers (240 miles) southwest of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.

The reported capture of the base could not be independently confirmed. Myanmar's military government made no immediate comment, and the spokesperson of the Arakan Army did not respond to questions sent by The Associated Press.

The fight in Rakhine is part of the nationwide conflict in Myanmar that began after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and suppressed widespread nonviolent protests that sought a return to democratic rule.

Despite its advantages in arms and manpower, Myanmar’s army has been on the defensive since October, when an alliance of three ethnic rebel groups launched an offensive in the country’s northeast.

The video released by the Arakan Army was described as having been made Saturday. It shows Arakan Army fighters guarding men in military uniforms and civilian clothes, some injured, as they walk through a field and down a roadside accompanied by women and children — families of soldiers often live at their posts.

A caption accompanying the video says it shows the deputy commander of the group and his troops after a “final assault in which (they) faced total defeat and surrendered.”

The video does not specify the total number of captured soldiers and their family members, but in one part about 300 men can be seen sitting in rows in an open field.

In a statement released Sunday, the Arakan Army said it captured the command post Thursday after attacking it for two weeks. It claimed another army post was seized the next day, along with others over the past two months.

The attackers captured “weapons, ammunition, military equipment and surrendered prisoners of war,” the statement said.

Some parts of the video released Monday show young men who appear to be members of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Myanmar’s military has been accused of filling its depleted ranks with Rohingya men in Rakhine under the recently activated conscription law. The army has lost personnel to casualties, surrender and defections while facing increasingly tough opposition on the battlefield.

The Rohingya were the targets of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign incorporating rape and murder that saw an estimated 740,000 flee to neighboring Bangladesh as their villages were burned down by the army in 2017.

Ethnic Rakhine nationalists aligned with the Arakan Army were also among the persecutors of the Rohingya minority, but now the Arakan Army and the Rohingya are uneasy allies in opposition to the military government.

The Arakan Army, which seeks autonomy from Myanmar’s central government, is part of an alliance of ethnic minority armies that launched an offensive in October and gained strategic territory in Myanmar’s northeast bordering China.

Its success was seen as a major defeat for the military government, and boosted the morale of restive ethnic minorities as well as the pro-democracy resistance.

On Sunday, the Kachin Independence Army, another major ethnic armed group, claimed to have captured Sumprabum, a township in the northern state of Kachin.