Christian villagers held for six months by rebels in Myanmar finally released

Members of Myanmar ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, flee from attacking government forces.Reuters

A rebel faction that was holding dozens of people from a predominantly Christian village in Myanmar has released them after six months.

The Arakan Army has released 52 villagers seized from Kintalin village in Chin's Paletwa township in western Myanmar, according to Radio Free Asia. 

They were taken into captivity in February and held in a border camp following fighting with Myanmar troops in the village.  The Arakan Army denied that they had taken the villagers by force and claimed that they had helped them to safety after the fighting in Paletwa. 

It was reported that the rebels took 54 villagers but two were able to escape. 

A local pastor named only as Moses told Radio Free Asia that the villagers were now all free. 

"They said that all have been released," he said. 

The villagers were expected to stay at a camp for internally displaced persons in Meezar following their release. 

International Christian Concern, a charity supporting persecuted Christians, condemned the kidnapping. 

"For the Chin captives who were held against their will for months, this is definitely encouraging news that they could finally return home," ICC Regional Manager Gina Goh said.

"We rejoice with them and their loved ones. However, the AA should not have taken them in the first place. Civilians have the right to live without fear despite ongoing armed conflicts between the AA and Tatmadaw [Myanmar military]."

Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority country and is ranked 18th on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most severe persecution. 

Around 100,000 have become IDPs because of fighting in Kachin state.  Last year, it was reported that the Myanmar army had bombed 60 churches and set up Buddhist pagodas in their place.

In addition to the harassment of Christians, the country's Rohingya Muslim population has suffered intense persecution, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee across the bordern into Bangladesh where they are living in poor conditions in camps. 

A UN report last week called for sanctions to be imposed on companies connected to the Myanmar military.  The report said that the international community should "sever ties with Myanmar's military and the vast web of companies it controls and relies on". 

It said that 14 firms from seven countries had supplied weapons to Myanmar since 2016.

Calling for for the imposition of an arms embargo, the report stated, "During this period the military carried out extensive and systematic human rights violations against civilians in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states, including the forced deportation of more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya to Bangladesh."