Officials in Pursat province continued yesterday to claim that a Thai national killed by Cambodian police gunfire on Friday night was a member of the Thai military despite Thailand denying the claim and calling the victim a simple “local hunter.”
Keo Sokunthea, deputy provincial police chief, said identification cards from the Thai military were found inside three shoulder bags that were left behind when the group of Thai men fled the area following the gun battle. Mr Sokunthea also alleged that the Thai commander of the local paratroopers unit had confirmed the identity of the dead man as Thai military.
“The Thai paratrooper chief at the border rejected that those forces belonged to his troops, but they told us these [men] are the Thai Kings’ special forces,” Mr Sokunthea claimed.
The skirmish took place at about 10 pm roughly 150 meters from the border in Veal Veng district’s Thma Da commune. Provincial border police chief Kuoy Saroeun said border police discovered a unit of approximately 20-strong Thai rangers within Cambodian territory set up in three groups in a temporary camp.
Thailand’s government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn rejected the assertion that military identity cards were found within the bags left behind by the Thais.
“We believe these people are local residents hunting to make a living,” Mr Panitan said yesterday. When asked if the group was carrying weapons, he replied he did not know for sure but added, “usually they have some sort of weapon to hunt animals.”
Although Mr Panitan said he was still awaiting a final report, he also differed with Cambodian officials on the number of Thais encountered by the Cambodian border police on Friday. He claimed the group numbered only five to six men.
However, Mr Panitan did echo the earlier comments of Cambodian leaders who said the killing of the Thai man, whose identity is not yet known, was not a stepping-stone to greater conflict between Thailand and its neighbor.
“It’s not an escalation. From time to time you have some incidents like that,” he said. “It’s not a national incident. It’s a local, isolated incident.”
Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat said yesterday the Thai group was likely a mix of soldiers and civilians and stressed it was clear they came into Cambodian territory. Contacted later, Mr Sucheat said he had not heard any reports concerning the discovery of Thai military identity cards.
Other Cambodian officials remained skeptical yesterday of the assertion that the dead Thai man was a local hunter.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the circumstances surrounding the shooting implied there was more to the story than was being admitted to, though he pointed out he did not entirely know if the Thai men who had crossed the border were military or civilian.
He called it “unusual” that the men entered Cambodia in the early evening, were reportedly wearing some military garb and left behind three weapons, including one he said was described to him as a “military rifle.”
Regardless of the Thai men’s real identities, Mr Siphan said, they should not have been in Cambodia.
“No matter what it is, you are in Cambodian territory with a weapon at nighttime,” he said.