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2 Chinese miners kidnapped in Myanmar

YANGON--Two Chinese men working at a controversial China-backed copper mine in Myanmar have been kidnapped by activists and monks who have threatened to kill them, the firm behind the project said Monday.

China's Wanbao, which operates the Letpadaung mine in the town of Monywa, northwestern Myanmar, said activists were holding the two 23-year-old contractors and demanding the “total halting” of the project.

The mine has triggered fierce opposition from local villagers over alleged land grabs and environmental damage, and raised questions over Myanmar's reliance on investment from neighboring China — which propped up the former junta.

“Wanbao vehemently condemns this unprovoked attack on our colleagues,” said the firm in a statement, calling for the immediate release of the men, who were surveying a part of the mine when they were set upon by activists and two local monks on Sunday.

The statement said the activists, who claimed to be from a group called the “Student Network of Mandalay,” had issued a number of demands and a death threat.

A spokesman for the company and local officials contacted by AFP confirmed the incident.

“We strongly urge that our two colleagues be released soon,” said Wanbao official Cao Densheng, adding that the company had asked for help from authorities in Sagaing Division, northwestern Myanmar.

The copper mine has been struck by several rounds of protest from campaigners and local villagers.

A botched raid on a protest there in November 2012 sparked anger after police used phosphorus against demonstrators, in the harshest crackdown since the end of military rule in early 2011, which left dozens — including monks — wounded.

Call to Halt the Mine

Wanbao said that initially three contractors, two Chinese and a 21-year-old Myanmar national, working for a firm called Norbenco were captured on Sunday morning.

The kidnappers demanded the release of a fellow activist arrested by local police the same morning.

They also called for an end to fencing being erected on the land of local people who had declined to accept a government “land subsidy,” the firm said.

Later the Myanmar national was freed, but in an apparent escalation of the situation the campaigners called for the entire mine project to be halted and threatened to kill the captured men if people from a nearby village were injured by police attempting to free the men.

“Wanbao cares greatly for the people of Myanmar and we very much hope that this issue can be resolved peacefully as soon as possible so that our colleagues can return to their families,” the firm said, adding that opposition to the mine came from “a small number of extremists and activists.”

An official from the Forestry and Mining Ministry in Sagaing confirmed the incident to AFP and said top officials were on their way to the area without giving further detail.

The incident comes as China sent five ships to help evacuate its nationals from Vietnam after territorial tensions between the neighbors spilled into deadly rioting last week.

Beijing has long been Myanmar's largest investor and was a powerful political ally of the former junta.

But a series of political reforms under a new quasi-civilian government have seen Western sanctions against Myanmar swept away, raising hopes of a boom in international investment which could see the impoverished nation wean off its dependence on Chinese money.

In July 2013 the country revised the terms of the mine deal with Wanbao, in an apparent attempt to assuage public anger over the scheme by giving the nation a share of the profits.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is normally venerated around the country, was heckled by villagers last year after she recommended that the mine, a joint venture with an army-run firm, be allowed to go ahead.

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