Thai commandos storm hospital where the twin boys' rebel army holds 700 hostages

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It is hard to imagine a more bizarre hijack - 700 people held prisoner in a Thai hospital by about 10 gunmen who take their inspiration from a pair of mystical 12-year-old twins idolised by their Burmese followers as "God's children".

It is hard to imagine a more bizarre hijack - 700 people held prisoner in a Thai hospital by about 10 gunmen who take their inspiration from a pair of mystical 12-year-old twins idolised by their Burmese followers as "God's children".

They arrived appropriately enough, in a hijacked school bus, bursting their way into the hospital in a blaze of gunfire.

Throughout the day groups of terrified hostages slipped out of Ratchaburi hospital, 75 miles west of the capital, Bangkok, some released by their captors, others taking their chances and running for it. As darkness fell - and Thai commandos began preparing for the assault they would launch the following morning - the only reported injury was to a teacher from a nearby school who was wounded by a stray bullet.

All day yesterday, Thai soldiers and police took up positions outside the hospital. Having been humiliated in a hostage-taking incident in October, when dissident Burmese students stormed their embassy in Bangkok, the government appeared in no mood to compromise. Thailand's Interior Minister, Sanan Khachonprasat, said: "We will provide them with fair treatment when they are put on trial."

For the rebels of "God's Army" and for its leaders, Johnny and Luther Htoo, the hostage-taking is unlikely to have helped their cause. Public opinion in Thailand has turned against the Burmese rebels. Their seizure of the hospital indicates the desperation of the Karen people in Burma. Trapped between a relentless government and a hostile Thailand, ravaged by malaria and under artillery bombardment from both sides, theirs is a dying movement with nothing left to lose.

The gunmen are part of a breakaway sect from Burma's Karen National Union which has been fighting the military government in Rangoon for the past 50 years. Armed with grenades and automatic weapons and wearing balaclavas, they infiltrated the sprawling hospital complex, issuing a warning that the front of the building had been mined.

A team of Thai negotiators sent in to secure the release of the hostages dashed out of the hospital amid gunfire. The gunmen released two groups during the day-long stand-off with hundreds of Thai police and military. A total of 70 hostages were released and they were immediately taken to two special command centres for debriefing.

The release of the hostages came shortly after the Thai army chief, General Surayudh Julanond, said he had ordered troops to stop shelling the guerrillas' base on the Burmese border, and that Thailand would allow unarmed refugees from fighting across the border to enter the country for medical treatment - two of the hostage-takers main demands.

General Surayudh told reporters that negotiations with the hijackers had been going well and tensions were easing, but one of the gunmen, who identified himself as "Knui", warned that their demands had not been met. He told a Thai television crew who were given access to the hospital to hear the hostage-takers' grievances: "We will go back when our demands are met, when we reach an agreement. We still don't have any definite plan on how to return. We don't want to stay here too long." The television crew emerged with footage showing dozens of trapped patients, watched over by men armed with M-16 and AK-47 automatic weapons.

The gunmen are believed to have hijacked the school bus to drive from the border to the hospital. The local MP, Wichet Kasemthongsri, claimed the gunmen had killed several Thais during a skirmish there.

The hostage-takers are believed to have been acting under the orders of the twin brothers, who command almost mystical loyalty among their followers along the Thai-Burmese border. The followers - thought to number about 100 - are said to believe the twins have supernatural power that makes their disciples invincible in battle. The boys are believed to have stayed in their border stronghold.

As police took up their positions yesterday, the government made clear it would take a strong line with the gunmen. "These people are terrorists who have made an incursion into Thai territory,'' said a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "After making a terrorist seizure it is unlikely we will comply with their demands, although it is always our policy to avoid unnecessary violence.''

Thailand was criticised domestically and internationally last year when five gunmen who stormed the Burmese embassy in Bangkok were given safe passage to the border.

Interior Minister Sanan said the government suspected that several of the hospital attackers were involved in the seizure of the Burmese embassy. The embassy gunmen - known as the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors - are believed to have joined forces with the twins, and there are similarities in the way the buildings were taken over.

The Thai government's decision to launch the commando assault on the hospital is meant to send a clear message to Burmese rebels that it is no longer prepared to tolerate terrorist activity inside its borders, despite the fact that there remains some sympathy in the country for their struggle against the Rangoon military dictatorship. The Interior Minister had warned: "I have ordered security forces to protect the lives of the hospital staff and the patients. I have also told them to take tough action against the attackers."

During the negotiations, the Deputy Prime Minister, Korn Thappharangsi, appealed to the gunmen not to harmany of the hostages. "I want to tell those who seized the hospital that it is not right for bargaining," he said.

The Burmese junta issued a blunt statement yesterday, saying: "It is about time these armed men are treated as terrorists by the international community.''

The list of demands issued by gunmen included medical treatment for rebels injured in recent fighting with Burmese troops, and a halt to Thai shelling in the border area. They were also demanding that the Thai government open its border to Karen refugees.

In response, Lt-Gen Tawip Sukwanasing, army commander in the border area, said the shelling had been stopped. He denied Karen rebels had been attacked. "We are only concerned at insurgents coming across the border," he said.