Gunmen Hijack Boat, Rob Angkor-Bound Passengers

Seven armed men hijacked a passenger boat on its way to Siem Reap Wednesday morning, binding and gagging the 90 passengers aboard and escaping with money and other valuables, witnesses and police said.

Some passengers feared they would be killed. Others cried. All of them lost money, jewelry or mobile phones. But in the end, no one was killed or injured.

“They shouted, ‘I just want to rob you, not kill people. So all of you must be quiet; otherwise, I’ll kill you,’” said boat owner Chann Na, who was bound and gagged in the bathroom.

The attack occurred about an hour into the trip from Phnom Penh, at a curve in the river near Kom­pong Luong town in Kom­pong Chhnang province. The men, disguised as passengers, drew the AK-47s, pistols and knives they had smuggled aboard and began herding passengers off the roof and into the main cabin, said Chann Na and other witnesses.

One gunman fired once into the air and began tying everyone’s hands, said Eric Scott Mills, a 36-year-old American who works in Bangkok and was one of 44 foreigners aboard.

One man, apparently the leader, yelled, “Anyone looks at me, I kill you,” Mills recalled. Once everyone was tied up and gagged with clear packing tape, the boat stopped. “We just sat there,” he said.

The hijackers closed all the windows and put plastic seat covers over the heads of some of the hostages including Mills.

“That’s why I thought they were going to kill me,” Mills said. One man put a gun to the back of his head, muttering, “kill, kill,” and later, a hijacker pushed a gun into his stomach and took Mills’ wallet. “He was nice enough to put it back in my pocket,” Mills quipped in an interview.

During the hijacking, two women passengers “were bawling their eyes out,” he said.

After holding the passengers hostage for nearly two hours, the gunmen pulled the boat to shore and disembarked after destroying the boat communications systems and firing a shot into the floor of the boat, Chann Na said.

The hijackers discarded their AK-47s on the river bank and fled by motorcycles and in at least one car waiting for them, a witness and police said.

The point where the hijacking took place was close to road systems leading in all directions.

Military police were deployed to four provinces surrounding the site of the attack—Kandal, Kom­pong Speu, Kompong Cham and Kompong Chhnang—according to Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.

Two suspects were arrested around noon on the border of Phnom Penh and Kandal pro­vince, one police source said.

Police in Kompong Chhnang set up a checkpoint on Route 5, said Sou Phirin, provincial governor. However, he said he suspected the hijackers had fled to Phnom Penh, “because [there] it is easy to escape our forces.”

A water traffic police official said this was the first time such an incident had occurred.

If so, this was not the first act of piracy on Cambodia’s waterways. In 1996, it was common practice among Tonle Sap shippers to hire armed guards to protect them from bandits “collecting taxes.” During the same period, armed Khmer Rouge guerrillas held up cargo ships on the Mekong.

Diplomatic sources were surprised by the attack, and said it could have some long-lasting security implications. The use of so-called “fast boats” are a popular mode of travel to the Angkor temples in Siem Reap.

“We’ve long believed it is unsafe…for principally this reason,” said US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann. The embassy is one of a number of organizations that has had a ban on employees traveling by boat. In the US’ case, the ban and a travel advisory for US citizens were put into effect over the lack of life preservers.

Evidence of the hijacking re­mained scattered about the cabin of the long boat at the Chann Na Co dock. Dirty strips of rags lay at the rear of the boat, and wide strips of clear packing tape, some still in the ring shape used to bind hands, lay everywhere.

“I got religious, of course,” Mills said, recalling his hours spent blindfolded and gagged. “I thought about my family—and how my mom didn’t want me to travel.”

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)






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