Army officials in Myanmar have confirmed they have arrested two assistant priests who have been missing since 24th December, accusing them of aiding ethnic separatists.

Morning Star News reports that the army has accused Dom Dawng Nawng Latt and La Jaw Gam Hseng of serving as “informers and spreading false news on behalf of the armed insurgents” in Shan state, according to an account from state news organ, the Myanmar News Agency, last week.

The state news agency reported that the two clergymen “gave information of the Tatmataw’s [Myanmar army’s] activities to the armed groups, gave them money and spread rumors to foreign media so as to arouse mistrust of the government among public and international communities.”

The accusations surfaced amid reports by domestic and international media that the two clergymen went missing after helping local journalists cover the military’s late November bombing of a Catholic church and a school in Mong Ko, northern Shan state.

“The two suspects made repeated connections with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) armed group before and during the Mong Ko attacks and recruited new troops for the armed group and transported oil,” the Myanmar News Agency reported.

Sources earlier told Morning Star News that the two assistant priests were arrested because they helped journalists take photos of the damaged church and interview local residents. Under pressure from the army, area authorities later requested journalists delete photos of the damaged church, the sources said.

Morning Star News reports that a presidential spokesman had initially denied the military had detained the men but that the Ministry of Defence later said the army didn’t reveal the arrest and accusations against the two assistant priests earlier “due to the security of hardcore informants and for questioning the arrestees in detail in line with the rules and procedures, making investigations and approvals by taking time for finding the truth".

Army officials have said the two men were being investigated and will be tried in a civilian court. State media and the military have released no information on the two men’s condition.

The state news agency reported that the two assistant priests had been “ government troops on 4th December, but the suspects fled to a neighboring country [China border] before they returned to Mong Ko on 24th December, when they were finally arrested".

Sources who spoke to Morning Star News, however, have contradicted this account, saying that while the clergymen had fled the Mong Ko area on 4th December, they had returned on 7th December and on 17th December had brought journalists to Mong Ko to view the bombing damages of the government forces. They remained in Mong Ko until 24th December, when they went to the Byuha Gon military base to negotiate the release of a civilian couple who had complained to army officials about the destruction of their house, sources said. Military officials released the couple and detained the clergymen, they said.