Police have arrested one man suspected in Wednesday’s brazen tour boat hijacking and know the identities of his six accomplices, a top military police official said Thursday.
A squad of 10 military police arrested Choam Phal, 28, at his Russei Keo district home at 10:35 pm Wednesday, said National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.
Choam Phal was being held Thursday at Military Police headquarters in Tuol Kok district. He is suspected, with six others, of hijacking a tourist boat bound for Siem Reap on Wednesday. More than 90 passengers and crew on board the Chann Na Company boat were bound, gagged and robbed. No one was killed or seriously injured, police said.
The tour boats are a popular means of travel to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Officials have described the hijacking as the first of its kind in Cambodia, and a damaging blow to the country’s growing tourism industry.
Choam Phal, identified as an RCAF engineering soldier, was found in possession of more than $3,000 in 10 different currencies, as well as six 35-mm cameras, five mobile phones, four knives, a tape recorder and a bottle of perfume, police said. An official estimate of the value of the stolen property was not immediately available.
“I was arrested because I committed terrorism,” Choam Phal told reporters Thursday morning at the military police compound.
Police were tipped off to Choam Phal’s whereabouts after a neighbor reported to them Choam Phal had tried to sell him a K-59 pistol, Sao Sokha said, adding he suspected the pistol was later thrown away.
Choam Phal subsequently divulged the names of the six other men. Police now have all their names and a photograph of one of the men, Sao Sokha said.
Some of them are RCAF soldiers, and some of them have previous criminal arrests, he said.
“We work hard on this operation,” he said. “Next time the robbers will be scared of the [military police].” He said he planned to wrap up the search for the other hijackers within the next few days, and he called the robbers “young gangsters from Phnom Penh.”
Police were unsure the exact ages of the hijackers, but one witness said Wednesday he thought they looked between the ages of 23 and 40. All of the suspects are Cambodian, Sao Sokha said.
During Thursday’s interview, Choam Phal said he was not the leader and that the group had not collaborated with the owner of the boat company, Chann Na, who was also on board, bound and gagged, during the attack.
“We planned to rob the boat since March 20,” he said.
The group met in Russei Keo district early Wednesday and took motorbike taxis to the boat dock, near the Japanese Friendship Bridge. They carried with them a large bag concealing two AK-47 assault rifles, as well as cloth strips and tape meant to bind passengers. In addition to the rifles, the men concealed pistols and knives tucked into their pants, Choam Phal said.
Some bought tickets at the station. Others bought tickets while on the boat, Choam Phal said. When the boat took off, he sat in the back of the passenger cabin with the bag. Some of the hijackers sat inside, some on the roof. One sat near the driver.
As the boat neared Kompong Tralach district in Kompong Chhnang province, the hijacking’s leader—who Choam Phal would not name to reporters—drew a pistol and held it against the driver’s back, telling him to slow down. Then the leader signaled to the others to draw the AK-47s from the bag.
As the boat slowed down, the men on the roof began to move the passengers into the cabin.
Once everyone was below, the hijackers tied them up and systematically robbed them, victims said Wednesday.
The group fled the boat after running it against the shore. Choam Phal said he then took his bag and fled by motorbike taxi to Phnom Penh, where he was arrested later that night.
The audacious daylight attack on the riverboat caught police by surprise, said Ministry of Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
“We have a [police] saying: ‘When we lose our vigilance, there will be crime,’” Khieu Sopheak said Thursday. “So far, we didn’t think this would happen on a boat.”
He said authorities do have boats to patrol the nation’s inland waterways, but that the fleet is usually docked, and old and slow when in use. “I admit the patrol boats are not so active,” he said.
The value of the stolen items, including cash, could be as high as $100,000, including diamond rings and gold watches, Khieu Sopheak estimated.
Tour boat company workers, including Chann Na, interviewed Thursday said they were worried about their businesses. But Thursday’s rides to Siem Reap were full, they said.
“The number of passengers can drop down because people are afraid this kind of hijacking could happen again,” said Vong Tola, a ticket salesman for Khmer Express Boat.
“I appreciate it if the authorities can arrest the suspects on time,” Chann Na said. “But if police cannot arrest them, it will not look good at all. People might not believe in the authorities’ abilities.”
A tourism official described the attack as “very shocking.”
“We hope travelers understand this is the first time it happened to us,” said Sambo Chey, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Tourism.
Cambodia has been experiencing a recent growth in tourism sector. The number of visitors was up 40 percent between 1998 and 1999. In the first quarter of 2000, there have been 25 percent more tourists than at the same time last year, Sambo Chey said.