MANDALAY, Myanmar — Gunmen dressed in soccer uniforms halted an express bus on a main highway in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State and kidnapped 31 people, most of them firefighters, the authorities said on Sunday.
The abduction happened Friday morning, and began when a man stepped onto the highway in the bus’s path outside the ancient town of Mrauk U and forced it to stop, according to a military spokesman, Col. Win Zaw Oo.
More than 10 armed men in soccer uniforms, identified as members of a rebel group called the Arakan Army, then emerged from the jungle and boarded the bus, he said. They ordered the passengers to take their belongings and marched them away.
The group has not been seen since. Two bus drivers and an assistant were allowed to leave.
Rakhine State was the main site of the brutal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims carried out by Myanmar’s military, including a campaign of murder, rape and the burning of villages. Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh, where they live in squalid refugee camps with little prospect of returning to their homes.
At the same time, the Arakan Army, which is Buddhist, has been fighting its own battle in Rakhine State to create an independent state along the lines of the ancient Arakan kingdom, which once ruled the area.
The Arakan Army claims to have 7,000 soldiers. Since its founding a decade ago, it has killed hundreds of Myanmar soldiers. The conflict is one of several being waged by Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, against various ethnic groups.
A spokesman for the Arakan Army could not be reached on Sunday.
Colonel Win said that the rebel group had support from the local population, which makes it difficult to eradicate.
Since early last year, he said, there have been more than 20 similar kidnappings along highways in the region. Few of the hostages have ever been found.
“They keep doing it because they want to scare the people and build their power,” Colonel Win said.
Soldiers and the police were searching for the group taken Friday morning, which included 19 firefighters and eight construction workers. “We are chasing them to rescue the people,” Colonel Win said.
He said, “The jungle in Rakhine State is very large and the rebels live in the jungle — that is why we cannot find them.”
The bus was traveling from Mandalay in central Myanmar to Sittwe when the gunmen stopped it about two miles from Mrauk U, the historic capital of the ancient Arakan kingdom.
The area is the site of numerous ancient temples, stupas and forts that the government is seeking World Heritage status for.
Colonel Win said that the kidnappers had worn soccer clothes to avoid suspicion and “just to blend in with civilians.”
Saw Nang reported from Mandalay, Myanmar, and Richard C. Paddock from Jakarta, Indonesia.