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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Helicopter gunships begin off-shore patrols

Helicopter gunships begin off-shore patrols

T HE screaming whine of powerful jet turbines filled the air as the heavily-laden helicopter gunship heaved itself off the landing pad and, trailing a plume of dark exhaust smoke, roared off low over the ocean on an anti-smuggling patrol.

The Russian-built Mi-17, equipped with an awesome load of rockets, bombs and machine guns, is the latest weapon in the Cambodian government's arsenal against timber smugglers.

In the toughest warning yet in the war against smugglers defying an April 30 ban on log exports, the authorities have threatened lethal action.

It's a war the authorities believe they are winning.

Senior military officials said the multi-million dollar coastal trade in illicit timber will soon be a thing of the past, following the seizure of an illegal consignment of lumber worth more than a million dollars.

Last March former finance minister Sam Rainsy estimated timber smuggling could be worth anywhere between $50 million to $200 million per year.

"We've begun this month to end once and for all the illegal export of timber," Sihanoukville navy chief Tea Vanh said.

Vanh, a senior officer attached to a joint-service task force against smuggling, said he was acting on direct orders from the country's co-prime ministers.

Senior government officials in Sihanoukville said the illegal timber comprised "thousands of tonnes" of planks and logs and had been destined for neighboring Thailand and Singapore.

They said the value of the load was still being tallied but would likely run to several million dollars.

Another senior taskforce officer said that a second phase of the crackdown against log smugglers took place in the last week of June. "That will be the time when we (the government) controls hidden timber," said Lieutenant-Colonel Vann Bun Leang.

Colonel Leang said that air force and navy patrols were making regular checks on the movement of suspect shipping.

"There was an order from the government banning the export of timber, but after the ban was announced we saw there was still timber leaving the country. So we set up this suppression committee taskforce."

"We guarantee since we've set this up, no single boat can slip through," he said.

The taskforce comprises army, navy and air force units, and officers from the Ministries of Agriculture, Finance, Interior, Public Works and Transport.

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