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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Extortion claims follow fire

Extortion claims follow fire

THE residents of more than 50 houses razed by a huge fire in Phnom Penh say

firefighters were reluctant to tackle the inferno unless they were

paid.

Confusion reigned during the four-hour fire on Jan 18, with

allegations that firefighters demanded "fees" from scared householders and that

military police fired their guns dangerously.

Hundreds of people were

left homeless, desperate and angry by the night-time blaze in the Boeng Salang

quarter of Toul Kok district.

"Nothing is left for me," Ty Lang, a

47-year-old fruit vendor, said the day after the fire as she stared at the black

debris of what had been her house.

Only one injury - a heart attack

suffered by an old woman - was reported.

The fire was blamed on a man who

left incense sticks and candles burning in his house while he took his family to

a video parlor.

Kong Vann had been burning the incense and candles to

mark the seventh day anniversary of the death of their mother, who used to be a

fortune teller, according to police.

The  fire quickly spread after Kong

Vann's house burst into flames about 7:50pm.

Twenty-one fire trucks and

water carriers were dispatched by the municipality's fire department, and

ambulances and police and military police were also sent. The area soon became

packed with residents and onlookers, and police officers fired their guns into

the air to try to disperse them to clear space for rescue workers.

"Go

find the owner of the house, who started the fire," yelled a senior policeman

with a strong smell of alcohol on his breath.

Residents complained that

firefighters had sought fees from them before attacking  the  blaze.  Nou Kan,

73, said firefighters ignored his plea to "please help me" after he refused to

pay 10 domlung of gold to have his house sprayed with water as flames approached

it.

He said he had $5000 in his safe - but was adamant he would not pay

the firefighters anything - which he lost, as well as everything else in his

house, when it was burned to the ground. Asked what he rescued from his house,

he said "only this," pointing to the sarong, shirt and krama he was

wearing.

Moy Kim, 27, claimed she offered one million riel and one

domlung of gold to firemen to rescue her house, but they said it was not

enough. "I could not take anything out [of my house]. I could barely rescue my

son," she said, showing a small burn on the thigh of her 10-month-old baby.

The fire was put out at 11:40pm after destroying 53 houses.

Sok

Vanna, deputy director of the fire department, categorically rejected all

accusations that firefighters tried to exhort money from householders. "My

department never takes a single riel from anybody. If anyone does, I vow to

release him from duty and send him to jail. We fulfilled our duty, we were so

tired, but now we receive the blame," he complained.

He said his

firefighters had been harshly treated by military police (MP) personnel who

intervened in their work.  He alleged that some MPs, who had accepted money from

residents, fired their guns near the firemen to make sure they sprayed water on

houses not even in the line of the blaze. "It was like a [war] front-line," he

said.

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