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Crime Wave Jolts Phnom Penh

Crime Wave Jolts Phnom Penh

Cambodians are growing increasingly alarmed at a recent wave of armed robberies in

Phnom Penh, and many of them blame UNTAC for the distressing development.

Many people make sure they are locked up safely at home by eight p.m. and keep a

sharp eye out on their motorbikes at all times.

"Every morning we talk about robberies and gangs," said a civil servant,

reflecting the growing concerns.

Locals say there had been at least four robbery-related murders in mid-September,

adding that organized gangs were behind much of the violence. A policeman was shot

dead near Wat Phnom and his motorbike stolen by two assailants, while two people

were also killed near the university-one of them reportedly because she had seen

the gang planning their crime.

In another case, up to a dozen men armed with assault rifles tried to break into

the house of a rich citizen but backed off when he warned them that he had his own

arsenal and was ready to shoot.

A senior government official said that a French policemen living close to him had

been robbed twice by armed men, but foreigners appear to have been generally spared

from the scourge.

"We are very worried about this problem...there are [crime] clans," said

State of Cambodia Deputy Foreign Minister Phi Thach.

He added that he was so worried about the situation that he had borrowed a firearm

from a policeman friend.

Rumors of an impending curfew have also been circulating in Phnom Penh, apparently

caused by sightings of armed troops from the 7th Division in the streets.

The 7th was brought into the capital last November to quell the riots which erupted

over citizen frustration with corruption by officials in the Hun Sen regime. The

division is not supposed to be in town with arms without specific orders.

A senior official with the U.N. civilian police said his component had not received

"real evidence to support stories that crime is rapidly increasing and beyond

control."

But, he noted that, "We're dealing with a big city-the city is growing, so undoubtedly,

crime is growing," and added that as the Phnom Penh regime loosened its iron

grip on all aspects of life, negative social phenomena were bound to arise.

The official said a key task in controlling crime would be to teach local police

to be more vigilant while at the same time respecting human rights-a new concept

in Cambodia.

His main concern was the apparent increase in the number of unemployed government

soldiers arriving in the city.

"This is a potential trouble group," he said.

But for many Cambodians the problem lies with UNTAC rather than an inept local police

force.

They claim that UNTAC pressure on the government to free prisoners held in the capital's

grim prisons has released a flood of hardened criminals onto the streets.

"People say that when criminals are put in prison, UNTAC comes along and says

they must be released two or three weeks later," a State of Cambodia official

said.

The Phnom Penh government, with prodding by UNTAC, has recently released more than

200 non-political prisoners, many of whom had been held for many years without trial.

It is not clear how many had criminal convictions but it is highly unlikely that

UNTAC would push for the release of hardened cases.

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