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Trio caught on animal preserve

Villagers surprised to learn land is protected.

THREE villagers from Banteay Meanchey's Malai district have been arrested for entering a prohibited area designated as an animal preserve, according to a local rights group.

Late last month, 23 villagers walked into the prohibited area to farm but were shot at by seven officials from the Ministry of Environment wielding AK-47s, said Soum Chankea, Adhoc's Banteay Meanchey coordinator.

"No one was injured in the attack, but three men were arrested," he said Thursday, adding that the officials might have been trying to scare the villagers away from the prohibited area.

Soum Chankea said the villagers had broken the law. But he said the villagers had considered that area part of their village since 2001, when they cleared the forest to farm. A royal decree declared the site to be an animal shelter in 1993, but local residents were not made aware of this until 2003, Soum Chankea said.

"In 2001, while they were clearing the land, there were no authorities or environmental officials to stop their activity, so those people treat that place as their village," he said.

Malay district police Chief Mi Samorn said Thursday that the officials were only doing their jobs when they arrested the three men.

"Entering the prohibited area is against the law. That's why they were arrested," he said.

Officials at the Ministry of Environment could not be reached for comment on Thursday. Malai district Governor Tep Khunal said his district had 4,500 hectares of animal shelters, but that 3,500 hectares had been cleared for farmland.

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