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Child Terrorists Hold Hundreds Hostage in Thailand

Thailand hostages
Two armed Karen guerrillas, one of them talking on a mobile phone, are seen in this image from television after they seized hostages at Ratchaburi Hospital, 60 miles southwest of Bangkok Monday. (AP Photo)

Burmese rebels armed with automatic weapons are holding hundreds of people hostage in a Thai hospital.  Watch

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 24, 2000; 12:27 PM

BANGKOK, Jan. 24 Burmese rebels wearing face masks and armed with grenades and assault rifles stormed across the border into Thailand today and seized a large provincial hospital in Ratchaburi town, 75 miles West of Bangkok, holding hundreds of terrified patients, hospital staff members and visitors hostage. They laid explosives around the building and threatened to kill the hostages if Thai commandos tried to storm the facility.

The 10 or so rebels involved in the dramatic siege are said to be members of a shadowy, ethnic minority Karen rebel group called God's Army, a small fundamentalist Christian breakaway faction of a larger Karen guerrilla force. God's Army is led by two gun-toting, cigarette-smoking 12-year-old twins, Johnny and Luther Htoo, whose 200-odd followers believe the boys possess mystical powers.

The God's Army rebels who seized the Ratchaburi hospital were demanding that Thailand send medical teams to the border to treat their wounded comrades at their mountain base in Burma, and allow the guerrillas to take refuge on Thai territory from a Burmese military advance. The rebels also demanded Thailand stop its shelling of the border in support of the Burmese military operation.

As Thai commandos surrounded the building, and the army commander raced to the scene from Bangkok, government officials began negotiating with the rebels. More than 20 hostages were freed during the talks - first a group of about 19, then 4 additional hostages released a few hours later and another 17 people fled through a back door. But the Thai interior minister, Sanan Kachornprasart, who was directing the talks from Bangkok, said at least 500 hostages could still be inside the 770-bed hospital compound.

"I do not expect the negotiations to be protracted," Sanan told reporters here in Bangkok.

A Thai television cameraman was allowed inside the building, and his footage, broadcast on local television here, showed scores of frightened hostages huddled on benches, some hugging each other, while rebels brandishing automatic weapons paced around them. The rebels wore camouflage fatigues and had their faces covered with dark masks or scarves. Some wore beret caps, while others wore floppy bush hats, and they appeared to be passing around a mobile telephone.

This is the second time in less than four months that Burma's political instability has spilled over into Thailand. Last October, five Burmese students from a group called the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors seized the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, taking about 40 hostages, including diplomats and tourists getting visas. That 25-hour siege ended under a deal in which the student-rebels were taken to the border and allowed to disappear into the jungle terrain.

Those young hostage-takers, who said they were fighting for democracy against Burma's brutal ruling junta, were known to have taken sanctuary at the border with God's Army, the group responsible for today's hospital takeover.

The military dictatorship in Burma, which calls the country Myanmar, severely criticized that October deal that essentially allowed the hostage-takers to go free. Burma's junta was also incensed when interior minister Sanon, who helped negotiate that standoff, referred to the hostage-takers are radical students fighting for democracy in their homeland.

Little is known about God's Army, except that they are a breakaway faction of the main Karen guerrilla group called the Karen National Union, which has been fighting the central government in Burma for 50 years on behalf of the ethnic Karen people. Karens make up about seven percent of Burma's population.

The members of God's Army are mostly fundamentalist Christian in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country, and film footage here showed the God's Army rebel leaders, the 12-year-old twins, smoking and aiming assault rifles. The twins are said to disallow alcohol and swearing in the camp. Several child soldiers appeared among the ranks.

The rebels who seized the hospital today apparently stormed across the border and hijacked a bus, where they forced the driver to make the 45-mile drive to the center of Ratchaburi town. They burst into the hospital compound firing their weapons and tied explosives to the front gates.

It was unknown whether any Vigorous Students were among the God's Army guerrillas.

There were no reported casualties at the hospital during the takeover, although Thai radio reported that a teacher nearby the hospital was hit and injured by a stray bullet during the initial shooting.

The rebels at first herded all the doctors and nurses into the emergency room, but later allowed them to move around the hospital to tend to the patients. One nurse, who spoke on a mobile phone to Thai television, said she hid in one room with the door locked and the patients lying on the floor so they wouldn't be seen. "It's very tense," she said. "I saw them walk by. They tried to come in, but couldn't."

The Thai army commander, Gen. Surayud Chulanond, said one of the rebels' demands would be met the shelling of the border area would be halted.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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