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Tourists caught in shootout

Tourists caught in shootout

TWO German tourists traveling from Phnom Penh to see the temples of Angkor last week

were injured and robbed after their taxi was caught in a crossfire at an unofficial

checkpoint along Route 5.

Sandra Maria Beslmeisl of Kelheim was shot in the right hip and stomach and received

multiple shrapnel wounds from a B-40 rocket during the June 18 attack near Kompong

Chnnang, said Susanne Baumann, a German Embassy official.

Beslmeisl, 22, was airlifted to Singapore for emergency medical treatment, but doctors

fear they will not be able to save her right leg. Jan Bellmann, 24, of Dresden received

a minor injury from another bullet that grazed his foot.

The incident deals a serious blow to the nation's fledgling tourist industry, re-affirming

Westerners' concerns that even non-Khmer Rouge zones are unsafe for travel.

"We came back from Siem Reap the same way (two days later) and then found out

how dangerous it was," said Jason Hines, an American backpacker. "It's

a small circle of travelers around here, so when a couple get shot, it's alarming

to us."

Many foriegn embassies had warned their citizens to only travel to Siem Reap by air,

but younger tourists on a shoe-string budget often cannot turn down the far cheaper

boat and taxi fares.

About 100 km from Phnom Penh, the Germans' taxi was stopped behind a few other cars

when a group of armed men in a pick-up truck approached from behind and opened fire

on the soldiers operating the checkpoint, said Baumann, who spent the night after

the incident with the victims.

"The people began firing at the roadblock. I don't know who started the firing,"

she said. "There was so much confusion. The whole thing lasted about 20 minutes."

Baumann said Khmers in the taxi instinctively dropped to the ground during the firefight,

but the startled Germans were hit when they failed to react fast enough. Gunmen robbed

them of their U.S. currency after the skirmish.

Checkpoints are established by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) on many roads

to protect them from bandits and Khmer Rouge guerillas. Soldiers have been known

to use their position of power to demand cigarettes and illegal tolls from travelers,

but most of the extortion is believed to be committed by legitimate soldiers and

imposters who operate roving, unofficial checkpoints along the route.

"Sometimes it is the Khmer Rouge, sometimes it is the thieves, sometimes it

may be RCAF soldiers," said Chum Sambath, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman.

"But we don't know who are the real soldiers. That is the problem."

Sambath said there may be an RCAF investigation of the incident, but did not have

any specifics. "I think the commander will try to find (the robbers), but it

is very difficult."

The difficulty stems from a form of extortion that has become so common, it has been

termed "acceptible corruption" by one Western military observer. Soldiers

who receive an inadequate salary from the government pad their income with the checkpoint

bribes.

Taxi drivers and other regular travelers have grown accustomed to paying off checkpoint

guards as they go, sometimes only slowing down enough to slap 500 to 1,000 riel into

their hands. Ouch Lyvan, co-owner of Cloud 9 guesthouse in Phnom Penh and another

in Siem Reap, said the situation along Route 5 has become increasingly dangerous.

"It's a difficult area to control so there are a lot of robberies," said

Lyvan, who makes the trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap about four times a month.

"All the time I take a car or truck along this road, and I am scared because

these people get drunk and maybe they will shoot. They say, 'If you pass my way you

have to pay me,'" Lyvan said. "A lot of times Khmer people get shot, but

this time they were foreigners."

After hearing of the incident, RCAF soldiers in Phnom Penh said they believed it

was probably an attack by bandits or legitimate soldiers or a fight between factions

within the military. Although they said extortion does occur within the military,

they were worried foreigners hearing of the incident would get negatively biased

impression of the Cambodian army.

"Throughout the world soldiers can be good or bad," an RCAF captain said.

"Some may use their uniform to take bribes, but most soldiers in Kampuchea are

good."

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