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Abduction reports denied as army locks down Laogai in attack’s wake

A Burma Army armoured personnel carrier patrols a street in Laogai on 7 March 2017. (Image: DVB)

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) has denied allegations that the Kokang ethnic armed group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) abducted 80 female staffers working at a casino in Laogai following an early morning assault on the town.

The MNDAA on Monday launched its attack on Laogai, also spelt Laukkaing, primarily targeting casinos owned by members of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone administration’s leading officials, including its chairman Bai Xuoqian. By Tuesday, a DVB correspondent on the ground in Laogai reported that armoured personnel carriers were patrolling the Kokang region’s administrative capital, which had essentially emptied out as residents fled to safer locations both within Burma and across the border in China, with sporadic gunfire and explosions in the town continuing.

Local media reports on Tuesday morning alleged that the MNDAA looted several casinos in Laogai while abducting some 80 female employees of Bai’s casino, taking them to an unknown location. But the TNLA’s Ta Bhone Kyaw, speaking to DVB by phone on Tuesday, said the MNDAA fighters did not abduct the casino staff and rather were evacuating them to the Chinese town of Nansan out of concern for their safety.

“The Kokang troops did not abduct the girls,” said Ta Bhone Kyaw. “They were actually evacuating them to Nansan town in China, across the border, out of concern that the Tatmadaw would do something to them.”

The TNLA and MNDAA are both members of the ethnic armed group coalition self-described as the Northern Alliance, along with the Kachin Independence Army and Arakan Army. Collectively, the groups have been engaged in hostilities with the government since the alliance staged a coordinated attack on the northern Shan State townships of Muse and Kutkai on 20 November. None is signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, with the KIA refusing to sign and the three others shut out of the negotiations leading up to the accord and its subsequent signing.

Ta Bhone Kyaw said an artillery shell landed about one kilometre from the Chinese border on Tuesday as fighting between the MNDAA and Burmese Army continued for a second day. No casualties were reported in that incident, but the Chinese government has called on both sides to cease hostilities.

Official casualty counts since the early Monday morning assault have been murky. The State Counsellor’s Office Information Committee said 10 people — five civilians including a teacher and five traffic police officers — were killed in the initial assault, while also describing the discovery of “20 charred corpses.” In a separate statement on Monday, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief said “20 burnt bodies of the insurgent group” and several weapons had been seized.

The statement from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief — who is currently visiting Vietnam — said a total of seven locations were attacked by the MNDAA on Monday.

Among the MNDAA’s targets were casinos owned by the Kokang administration’s chairman Bai and financial officer Xio Ah Bao. At least one individual was reportedly killed and 15 vehicles destroyed in the attack on Bai’s casino, according to local sources.

Bai replaced the MNDAA’s leader Peng Jia Sheng as the Kokang Self-Administered Zone’s leader when the latter was ousted in 2009, after refusing to accept a Border Guard Force scheme proposed by the then-military government.

The MNDAA and government forces also clashed in February 2015 and the months that followed, after MNDAA troops launched an attack on Laogai in an unsuccessful attempt to seize control of the town.

Additional reporting by Khun Zaw Oo in Laogai.