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Saturday, October 2, 1999 Published at 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Embassy gunmen flee

Some freed hostages showed support for their captors' cause

Gunmen who stormed the Burmese embassy in Bangkok have fled after being airlifted out.

The BBC's Charlotte Bevan: "It seems they got off scot free"
They freed all their hostages after the Thai Government granted them safe passage out of the country.

A helicopter then took them to the Burmese border and they reportedly disappeared into an area of Burma where armed ethnic minority groups are based, many hostile to the military government in Rangoon.

[ image:  ]
The gunmen had been airlifted with two Thai government officials, including the acting Foreign Minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who had offered to take the place of the hostages seized when the embassy compound was stormed on Friday.

Back in the Thai capital, Mr Paribatra said he was not sure which Burmese opposition group the gunmen were allied to.

"We didn't talk much because it was rather tense in the helicopter," he said.

"With guns pointing at our heads, no Thai officials were in the mood or had the nerve to ask about their affiliation."

The BBC's Daniella Relph: "Hostages shaken but unharmed"
The gunmen said they represented a previously unheard of group called the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors.

They said they were demanding the immediate release of all political prisoners in Burma and for dialogue between the military government and opposition groups.

[ image:  ]
At a press conference in Bangkok, the Thai Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart said that a total of 89 hostages were taken at the start of the siege by just five gunmen.

All the hostages are reported to be shaken but unharmed. One man said that being released was like dying and being reborn.

Expressions of sympathy

Their hostages included 51 Burmese nationals, as well as a number of foreigners who are thought to have been at the embassy applying for visas to visit Burma.

[ image: The end of the siege was peaceful, almost friendly]
The end of the siege was peaceful, almost friendly
After being freed, correspondents say a number of the hostages expressed some sympathy with the aims of the gunmen. Some of those released unfurled pro-democracy banners near the embassy and chanted "free Burma".

The armed group seized control of the embassy at about 1100am local time (0400GMT) on Friday.

Dozens of sharpshooters and elite anti-terrorist police units surrounded the embassy during the tense 24-hour long siege.

At one point the gunmen threatened to start shooting their captives - one every half hour - if their demands were not met.

The gunmen said they were willing to die in action.

Shortly before the gunmen left the embassy a series of gunshots were heard from within the compound but there are no reports of any casualties.

'Act of terrorism'

The group were understood to be armed with AK-47s, hand grenades and grenade launchers.

The Burmese Government called the attack "a pure act of terrorism" and in Washington the State Department, which has been critical of the Burmese military regime, also condemned what it called "a terrorist attack".

However correspondents say the Thai Government has been keen to avoid labelling the gunmen as terrorists and says the gunmen were just student activists asking for democracy in their homeland.

The All Burma Students Democratic Front - which represents Burmese students in exile - says it has no connection with the hostage takers and does not support violence in the pursuit of bringing democracy to Burma.

There are hundreds of democracy and human rights activists, including exiled students, working in Thailand to lobby for greater democracy in Burma.

The Thai Government says the incident will not affect its treatment of foreign nationals and students will continue to be free to express their political views.

Students and ethnic groups regularly demonstrate in front of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, but their demonstrations are always peaceful.

In 1990 the opposition National League for Democracy won an overwhelming victory in national elections, but the military regime has refused to relinquish power and in subsequent years has imprisoned thousands of democracy activists.

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