Gun-toting Cambodian policemen on Friday briefly detained the leader of a group of 300 environmental activists who seized and burned timber extracted by illegal logging companies in a rare rain forest area north of the country.
The activists, armed with sticks, confronted the policemen, numbering around 100, and demanded the release of their leader, Chhut Vuthy, in the encounter deep in the Prey Lang forests, which some green groups claim is Southeast Asia's largest lowland evergreen forest.
Styling themselves Cambodia's "Avatars," the activists have been conducting "patrols" in the heart of the Prey Lang forests since Monday to check illegal logging and other activities in a bid to protect the sprawling 3,600 square-kilometer (1,400-square mile) forest area.
On Friday, they stumbled upon an illegal timber depot in Sandan district in Kompong Thom province, one of four provinces in the Prey Lang forests, and burned all the wood, activist Yem Sokhom told RFA.
"After that, police arrived at the scene and tried to apprehend the activist Leader Chhut Vuthy over allegations that he had incited the villagers to destroy the timber.
"I saw police point guns at Vuthy and threaten to arrest him. The police forcibly confronted Vuthy in an attempt to arrest him," he said.
Undeterred, the activists threatened the police with sticks, Yem Sokhom said, adding that Chhut Vuthy was subsequently released.
"However, police continued to point their guns at the villagers, but the villagers were not afraid and threatened to fight back against the police," he said.
"The activists are not afraid to die because they are fed up with Prey Lang forest destruction. There are hundreds of cubic meters of timber that were cut and abandoned in the forest," he said. "They are not afraid even if police shoot them."
Speaking after his release, Chhut Vuthy blamed poor police enforcement for the destruction in the Prey Lang forest.
"If the police respect the government's order, the violence would not happen," he said, stressing that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen himself has spoken against logging and has won praise from the public for his stand.
The Cambodian government has identified Prey Lang as an important area for conservation, with high potential for carbon-credit financing, but it remains unprotected, environmental groups say.
The Prey Lang Community Network, set up to help in the protection of the area, says more than 40,000 hectares (98,840 acres) in the forest have been granted for rubber plantations alone, while 27 exploration licenses and related concessions have been handed to mining firms.
Community leader Sim Sean told RFA that local authorities had received bribes from the company as they cleared the forests to establish the rubber plantation.
But Kompong Thom deputy governor Oth Sam On denied the accusation, saying that the company owns a government license to carry out its activities.
The company has cleared only areas reserved for plantation activity and "not the dense forests," he said.
The Prey Lang activists have been championing conservation by wearing dress and makeup inspired by the blockbuster movie "Avatar," which depicts the destruction of a forest on an alien world and its inhabitants' bloody fight to protect their home from miners.
Most of the wood from Prey Lang is smuggled into China and Vietnam where it is made into furniture and exported worldwide, some environmental groups have charged.
Reported by RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.