Three deminers died in Kompong Speu province on Saturday when hundreds of mortar shells detonated as they attempted to move them from temporary storage on private property, officials said yesterday.
According to Svay Yoeun, chief of the provincial penal police bureau, Yoeun Sopheap, 47, Sok Him, 46, and Hoeun Kimsea, 40—all experienced officers at the Cambodian Mine Action Center—were attempting to remove the unexploded ordnance, or UXO, that they had stored the night before in a chicken coop set at a distance from Sopheap’s home in Chbar Mon City.
“The victims were killed because the UXO erupted when the men tried to move them to keep in the safe place and they hit other UXO,” said Mr Yoeun. “One died instantly, two others died when they arrived at the hospital.”
“The victims were burned and seriously wounded by shrapnel from the UXO explosion,” said Mr Yoeun. “We couldn’t save them immediately because we feared other UXO would erupt.”
He said detonations among the cache of bombs had continued for nearly half an hour.
Mr Yoeun voiced concern over deminers bringing potential lethal ordnance into the village. “I think they should not bring UXO inside a local village. We are concerned further about local security.”
Heng Ratana, director-general of CMAC, said yesterday that the incident was a one-time occurrence.
“It is very clear you cannot store such UXO in this [public] area,” Mr Ratana stressed. “This is not a common practice.
“They just were keeping them temporarily, only one night, at the safe place, and then were going to take the UXO to be destroyed the next day. I think they had good will but not the right decision,” he said.
Mr Ratana said CMAC was still in the midst of an investigation but that according to what he had learned so far, the men were likely prevented from detonating the UXO on Friday because of inclement weather.
Standard practice dictates that, if UXO cannot be destroyed immediately, they must be brought to a safe area—frequently a military base or special storage. But as evening set in it may have grown too late for them to make the trip, said Mr Ratana.
The UXO, a haul of about 370 57mm mortar shells, was likely set off when two of them collided with one another. The shells consist of three parts—a charge, a bullet head, and a bullet body—and are highly explosive if not first disassembled.
According to Mr Ratana, the three deminers were highly accomplished. Him was a supervisor with responsibility for two or three teams. Sopheap was a group leader with several years of experience and Kimsea was a well-trained staff member.
“I cannot say the UXO exploded because they were careless. They had nearly 10 years’ experience between them working at the CMAC base in Kompong Speu,” he said.
“We are very regretful these three officials died,” he said, adding that CMAC was responsible for paying compensation to each man’s family. He declined to say how much would be paid.
At Kompong Speu’s provincial referral hospital, director Toem Khany said yesterday that he had few details on the extent of the injuries but confirmed they were severe. “Yoeun Sopheap was dead when he arrived at the hospital,” he added.
So Vun, supervisor at Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh, said yesterday that Him died within 30 minutes of arriving there. He was sent there because his injuries were too severe for the provincial hospital to address.
“The victim was in very severe condition,” he said. “Our doctors were unable to save his life.”
(Additional reporting by Abby Seiff)