Sandwich seller Meas Thy was going home for the night, waiting for traffic to pass at the crowded intersection of streets 178 and 19 in Phnom Penh when an explosion erupted behind her, shattering a nearby phone kiosk and leaving her dying on the streetside.
“We had packed up our things and were leaving but the traffic jammed…so we stopped pushing our cart. Then the [bomb] exploded,” Meas Thy’s 16-year-old daughter Sok Theary said Wednesday.
Sok Theary survived the explosion but four others, including her mother, are dead and at least 11 others wounded in the deadliest single attack in the capital since more than a dozen people were killed in a 1997 grenade attack at a Sam Rainsy Party rally.
Police contend those killed or injured in Tuesday night’s attack were unwittingly caught in a brutal act of revenge against 19-year-old garment worker Heng An, who was in the phone kiosk when the blast happened.
“We conclude the dispute is linked to a love affair as the grenade was targeted at a girl who was arguing on the telephone at the time,” Khuon Sophon, Municipal Penal Police chief, said Wednesday.
Witnesses say two men drove by on a motorbike shortly after 8: 30 pm, rolled what appeared to be a grenade across the sidewalk and quickly escaped towards Norodom Boulevard.
Seconds later, as neighborhood residents milled about the street or ate at one of the several popular street-side food stalls, Heng An was blown from the kiosk.
Police and soldiers rushing to the intersection failed to completely hold back the widening crowd as the wounded were carried limp-bodied into ambulances and the most seriously hurt put on stretchers. For an hour after the blast area residents mixed with soldiers on the debris-strewn corner while police sifted through broken glass and bloodied cookware with pens, looking for pieces of the bomb.
Heng An died later at Calmette Hospital, according to police and hospital staff, who confirmed Wednesday that beggar Srei Neang, 39, and Uk Sokha, the phone kiosk’s 38-year-old operator were also dead.
Of the 11 injured taken to Calmette, four remain critically hurt, Calmette Director Heng Taikry said Wednesday afternoon.
Perhaps the most seriously wounded, 24-year-old stone sculptor Ann Kosal lay Wednesday afternoon under a blood-caked hospital sheet, unconscious and on life support.
Part of his right leg was amputated after the blast and his left remains held together with metal pins. A resident in Phnom Penh for only two months, Ann Kosal had walked Heng An to the telephone kiosk and was waiting for her beside it when the blast took place.
“Kosal…was very quiet. If the girl had not asked him to accompany her to the telephone he would be all right now,” said a relative who dismissed police claims the attack was motivated by a jealous lover.
Branding the attack a callous act, Sim Hong, deputy chief of Municipal Military Police, said Wednesday he was seriously concerned that criminals are turning to grenades instead of guns following the recent nationwide ban on gun ownership.
Two died in two separate Phnom Penh bomb blasts in July and August that left eight others injured. Further explosions in Pursat and Battambang towns resulted in five dead and more than 10 injured.
It remains unclear what was used to cause Tuesday’s explosion, though police theorize it may have been an American-made hand grenade.
(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)