Authorities in a northern Cambodian province on Monday rounded up six suspects for questioning in the killing of two officials and wounding of another who were on patrol in a preserved forest area, in the latest apparent confrontation between illegal loggers and officials, provincial police said.
The six own chainsaws that the three officials confiscated on Friday while they were patrolling the forest for illegal logging activities.
Authorities sent five of the men to the Forestry Administration office and the last to police headquarters in Preah Vihear province for questioning.
Authorities have not yet identified the suspects, who are being questioned about an incident early Saturday in which a group of unknown gunmen equipped with AK-47 rifles ambushed officials on patrol in the Preah Roka Protected Forest in Choam Ksan district, Preah Vihear province.
The group killed police officer Sap Yuos from Chheb district and Forestry Administration official Seang Narong, and wounded border police officer Phet Sophoan as they slept in hammocks in the forest. The trio was on patrol on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bonh village in Choam Ksan district.
Kheng Someth, a four-star general who is commissioner general of Cambodia’s national police and commander of two military regions, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he would not tolerate the group of gunmen and said his force was committed to bringing them to justice.
“They, the officers, were committed to [fulfilling their tasks] and sacrificed themselves bodily and spiritually, including their lives, to protect national treasures,” he said. "I regret their deaths very deeply."
Nongovernmental organizations, rights groups and forest community activists in Preah Vihear voiced concern and regret over the incident.
Activist groups requested that the government and Preah Vihear’s authorities investigate the case and arrest the perpetrators, so that they don’t have to perform their duties in fear of being shot in other forest communities.
Pich Poin, an officer from the Network of Community Activities in Preah Vihear, said he suspected that illegal loggers were responsible for the crime.
He also said the attack was a threat to authorities and activists trying to protect the forest from illegal deforestation, a rampant problem throughout Southeast Asia.
“We encourage the government to investigate [the case], and seek to arrest those who committed the crime and violence,” he said.
Lor Chan, the Preah Vihear province coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, condemned the act and said authorities should do their utmost to find the armed men who killed the rangers to bring justice to the victims’ families.
“[First,] I understand that this is a serious case of human rights abuse,” he said. “Second, it is a threat to those who are trying to protect and preserve the forest.”
Investigating the scene
Officers at Preah Vihear's police headquarters said a team of investigators examined the scene of the shooting 10 hours after the incident occurred and transported the victim’s bodies out of the forest.
Keo Chamroeun, deputy provincial police chief, said he did not believe that robbery was the motive.
“This case is not a robbery case because all the belongings of the victims were still there,” he said. “Their money, cameras and cell phones were found at the scene.”
The three forest protection officers had confiscated chainsaws and other equipment from one group of illegal loggers before the attack occurred, sources from forest protection groups in the province’s Tbeng Meanchey district said.
At the scene, authorities spotted several fired bullets from the AK-47 rifles that the gunmen used to shoot the officials, they said.
Forestry Administration director Chheng Kim Sun said it had been about 20 years since a logger had shot dead an administration official, The Cambodia Daily reported.
The illegal logging of timber largely from protected areas and national parks is pervasive in Cambodia, despite strict laws protecting rare and luxury tree species, which have been in effect since 2002 to reduce massive deforestation.
The country’s a multimillion dollar timber smuggling operation is fueled primarily by China’s high demand for luxury wood for furnishings.
Rights groups have charged that illegal logging is rampant in Cambodia and often occurs under the protection of government agencies or influential people.
Reported by Hang Savyouth and Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.