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Did Siege End In Cold Blood?

The God's Army rebel group was believed to be holding out against attacks by Myanmar troops near the Thai border on Wednesday, a day after a desperate hostage seizure to secure their retreat into Thailand ended in bloodshed.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai sidestepped claims that Thai commandos had killed the 10 hostage-takers in cold blood after they surrendered Tuesday in a rescue operation to free hundreds of people held captive at a provincial hospital.

"We shot faster than they did," Chuan said. "On the contrary, if they shot faster than us, our officials might have been killed instead."

The hostage-takers included members of God's Army, a fringe group from the Karen minority led by twin 12-year-old boys, and a tiny band of radicals, the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors, who took hostages at Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok in October.

The groups have been under pressure since last week, when Myanmar forces advanced on their mountain camp, sending 1,000 civilian refugees fleeing into Thailand. The Thais then shelled the rebels to keep them from seeking refuge on Thai soil.

On Monday, the gunmen hijacked a bus at the border and forced the driver to take them to Ratchaburi, 95 kilometers (65 miles) west of Bangkok. They seized the hospital with hundreds of patients, staff and visitors inside and rigged explosives, threatening to blow it up if attacked.

The gunmen demanded an end to the Thai shelling and refuge for themselves and civilians.

Thai commandos attacked before dawn Tuesday, killing the gunmen and freeing their hostages unharmed, though four people are reported to have died of natural causes during the siege.

Thailand stepped up security along the border and at Myanmar's embassy Wednesday against the possibility of revenge attacks and security sweeps were made at various refugee camps. More than 300 sticks of dynamite were found at an ethnic Karen refugee camp in Mae Hong Song province, 360 kilometers (225 miles) north of God's Army territory.

The leaders of God's Army, Johnny and Lester Htoo, were not among the hospital raiders. Speculation mounted Wednesday on their fate.

One news report, based on unnamed dissident sources, claimed Myanmar forces had overrun their camp and the twins were missing.

Thai military and Myanmar dissident sources could not confirm the camp had fallen. Nor would the Myanmar government spokesman.

"We want to know their fate, too," said Col. Pairoj Thongma-eng of Thailand's border task force, which has good intelligence in the area. "We have followed the fighting but we have not received any news of their defeat."

Pairoj said he heard the latest clashes between the group and Myanmar troops had taken place Monday and Tuesday. No fighting was reported Wednesday.

The Myanmar spokesman said no major offensive was under way, but that troops were being positioned to prevent terrorists from entering or escaping the country.

A Myanmar reporter, who hs had contacts with God's Army, speaking on condition of anonymity said the latest news was that the Htoo brothers were safe and fighting continued, with the group fielding 100 fighters.

The brothers are believed by their followers to have magical powers of victory after directing a counterattack against Myanmar troops when their village was attacked in 1997.

The Associated Press visited their camp in December and found a cross between the Old Testament and Lord of The Flies, with adults obeying the orders of the twins without question.

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