After Capture, Military Police Allow Loggers to Escape

Forestry officials in Mondolkiri province say local military police on Friday freed four trucks and their drivers from the custody of district police who had stopped the vehicles for allegedly attempting to smuggle illegally logged wood to Vietnam for a military police official.

Keo Sopheak, deputy director of the Forestry Administration’s Mondolkiri cantonment, said the confrontation occurred in Keo Seima district, a hotbed of wood smuggling where two groups of armed soldiers faced off over a haul of illegal wood headed for Vietnam in June.

On Friday, Mr. Sopheak said, a trio of district anti-economic crime police stopped four trucks hauling 56 logs toward the Vietnamese border and that the drivers claimed the wood belonged to Sak Saron, commander of the Keo Seima military police.

But shortly afterward, he said, seven armed men arrived, unloaded the timber from the trucks for a fast getaway and drove off with the trucks and drivers. Mr. Sopheak said the seven men were dressed variously as civilians, military police and soldiers, but that the police recognized all of them as district military police.

“The seven military police pointed their guns at the economic police, who had stopped the trucks with illegal wood, to take the trucks back and escape,” he said. “The economic police did not dare to challenge them because they had weapons and pointed them at them.”

Meak Vuthy, an officer for the Forestry Administration’s Keo Seima division, said the military police had made off with the trucks and drivers by the time he and other forestry officials arrived at the scene.

“When we arrived, the trucks were gone and there were only the 56 logs blocking the road,” he said. “The economic police did not challenge them in order to avoid shooting.”

Mr. Vuthy said the logs were all first-grade Sokrom and would be kept at the local Forestry Administration office. He said they were preparing a complaint against Mr. Saron, the district military police commander allegedly identified by the truck drivers, to send to court.

Contacted by telephone, Mr. Saron denied the accusations and threatened to sue anyone who accused him of attempting to smuggle illegally logged wood.

“I know the law well,” he said.

Provincial police chief Nhem Vandy could not be reached for comment.

In late June, a military official in Mondolkiri claimed that his soldiers apprehended four Vietnamese men suspected of illegal logging and were waiting for a translator when soldiers from neighboring Kratie province arrived and freed them at gunpoint.

In May last year, Keo Seima district governor Sin Vanvuth had a gun placed to his head by a military police officer who arrived at the scene of a timber bust in an attempt to take back an SUV loaded with luxury wood. The officer escaped.

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