A routine forest patrol by Ministry of Environment officials and a conservationist escorted by Military Police in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildilife Sanctuary took a deadly turn yesterday when a shoot-out with Cambodian border officials erupted, leaving three dead, officials said last night.
Kong Putheara, Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary director, said that yesterday afternoon one of his rangers, along with a National Military Police official and a Wildlife Conservation Society staffer, were on patrol in O’Raing district near the O’Huch border crossing with Vietnam.
“But in the evening, around 5pm, we got information from the local authorities and the forestry activists near the area claiming to have a problem with a shootout, and they said two people died and one got injured in the jungle,” he said
Putheara stressed that as of last night he had no clear information as to the cause of the shootout and that more investigation was needed, but said it could be concluded that the shootout was “related to illegal logging in our protected area”.
Mondulkiri Governor Svay Sam Eng, meanwhile, said there had been a confrontation between the group and a “border force” stationed there.
This was corroborated by Bou Bun Chheat, O’Raing district police chief, who identified the officials killed at the scene as Theun Soknay, a ranger team leader from the Mondulkiri Provincial Environment Department, and Military Police officer Sok Vothana. “Even though in this case we do not know clearly yet, we just know that the victims had an armed conflict with the Chamkar Chek border police post,” he said.
Phan Setha, a technical adviser for Wildlife Conservation Society based in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, said that a WCS staff member named Thol Khna was mortally wounded in the shooting and died on the way to a hospital in Sen Monorom.
“He is a [Geographic Information Systems] staff, and they were patrolling along the border in O’Huch,” he said.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said the incident occurred about 20 kilometres from the border, and that prior to the incident, a report came through to Border Police Unit 621 that an environmental official had confiscated two chainsaws.
“The head of Unit 621 had ordered the head of the border post to check on it,” he said, noting that the head of the border police post went there with two soldiers. It was after that, he said, that authorities heard about the shootout.
When other authorities arrived on the scene, he said, everyone except for the dead and injured were gone, including the border unit members and soldiers. Other officials also said they did not know where the shooters were.
Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap said he had been informed of the incident and the ministry was “verifying the case”.
Reached last night, National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy said that Military Police officials have been sent to investigate the situation but that the reasons behind the shootout were still unknown.
Chhum Socheat, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, confirmed there was an armed confrontation.
“It took place at the Vietnam border . . . a confrontation between the group and the border force who was stationed there,” he said, before later saying loggers might be responsible.
Ken Sereyrotha, the country director for WCS Cambodia, said he was “very shocked”, and was awaiting further information, but noted the area is rife with logging.
According to Sereyrotha the patrol systems and schedules are decided by staffers at the local level, who in turn liaise with authorities.
“We work closely with government and we share our consultation strategies and patrol schedules, and it’s a joint effort with government,” he said.
“We work with Military Police because they are mandated to protect, they are eligible to hold guns and weapons,” while MoE officers are not, he said.