Seven men now under arrest in Preah Vihear for the slaying of two forest patrol officers in a nighttime ambush were identified from still photos taken from the camera of a fallen officer, a source familiar with the investigation said yesterday.
Six of the suspects were detained on Sunday and one more was detained yesterday, according to Lieutenant Colonel Thean Heng, the deputy chief of the provincial police. So far, none have been charged. Police are asking the provincial court prosecutor to let them keep the suspects in detention for longer than the legal limit of 72 hours.
“We need to conduct more investigation and research about this case . . . because they did not confess their offenses yet,” said Heng. Police declined to provide the suspects’ names.
Ten others brought in for questioning on Monday have since been released after having been found to be unconnected to the case.
A source close to the local forestry officials who did not wish to be named said yesterday that the suspects were all previously photographed by one of the slain victims, Seang Darong, a forest administration officer, during his previous patrols of the area. When forestry officials catch illegal loggers, they take their photos and telephone numbers.
When the attackers ambushed the patrol team, they did not take any of the officers’ equipment, including cameras.
“Police got [Darong’s] camera, identified people caught over the previous few days, then went back and arrested them,” said the source. “At least one [of the suspects] could be with the military.”
The source said that police have identified more people based on the photos and will be making new arrests very soon. Police confirmed that they’re on the lookout for other suspects, who may be hiding out in other provinces.
Major Dam Yin, police chief of Choam Ksan district, said that while the seven arrested suspects admitted that confiscated chainsaws belonged to them, all denied having a role in the killing.
“Our police did not trust their answers because they might be lying, so we decided to send them to the provincial police for further investigation,” said Yin.
Theth Sorphoan, a police officer wounded in the buttocks during the attack, said that gunmen ambushed his team while they were resting in hammocks in the forest. “I saw two or three men with AK-47 rifles standing and shooting at two officers who were still in their hammocks,” he said.
Ross Sinclair, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that the area is a patch of evergreen forest that used to be a logging concession in the 1990s.
As the world’s largest source of the critically endangered koki tree, it is a hotspot for loggers.
The area is a few months away from gaining protected forest status, which may be why loggers are trying to cut as much wood as possible before that happens, he said.
“This escalation has very serious implications,” he said.
“Rangers and police will be understandably hesitant to move in those areas and this potentially opens up the situation for increasing logging activity.”