Police: Deminer Stockpiled Smuggled Arms

A Cambodian Mine Action Centre employee arrested for alleged involvement in cross-border weapons smuggling told authorities he had stockpiled arms found in an underground cache in 2008, a police official said yesterday.

“Based on our information, he kept 20 AK-47 assault rifles and three 82 mm grenades at his home” in Battambang City, said Sith Los, deputy chief of the Banteay Meanchey provincial police.

The deminer, whom he identified as Mr. Vireak, “confessed that he sold weapons to Thailand on three occasions,” Brigadier General Los said. Government-aligned Fresh News had earlier identified him as 48-year-old Op Vireak.

Mr. Vireak and two other Cambodians were arrested in Battambang province’s Battambang City, Phnom Proek and Sampov Loun districts on Friday and transferred to Banteay Meanchey for questioning, Brig. Gen. Los said.

The jailing of the three Cambodians followed the arrests of five Thai nationals last Tuesday in Sa Kaeo province, which borders Banteay Meanchey province. The Thai suspects were charged with illegal weapons possession for allegedly transporting three 82 mm grenades, two 82 mm grenade launchers, one 81 mm launcher and three ignition devices from Cambodia to Thailand, according to a Thai police spokesman and the Bangkok Post.

A sixth Thai national, identified as the intended buyer of the smuggled weapons, was arrested in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province on Friday, the Bangkok Post reported the same day.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said on Sunday that the three Cambodians were arrested on Saturday in Banteay Meanchey “in connection with weapons smuggling.” He could not be reached yesterday to explain the discrepancy in the time and place of the arrests.

Brig. Gen. Los said Mr. Vireak confessed under questioning to taking the AK-47 rifles and grenades from Battambang’s Samlot district in 2008 after villagers discovered a weapons cache, and to secretly storing the arms and ammunition at his home.

Mr. Vireak allegedly transported weapons from Battambang City to Banteay Meanchey’s Malai district, from where the weapons were allegedly moved to Thailand last week.

Asked how much the weapons were worth, Brig. Gen. Los said he didn’t know and declined further comment.

Heng Ratana, director-general of the government demining organization known as CMAC, yesterday cofirmed that the deminer identified as Op Vireak was Ap Lengcheu, an employee since 1997. He had been on planned leave for nine days since July 15 and would be suspended pending the police investigation, Mr. Ratana said.

“If the police or the court find that he committed the crime, then we have to fire him,” he said.

CMAC worked with police to verify the employee’s identity, including using photographs, and was committed to cooperating with the police investigation, he said.

The employee had worked in Kompong Cham province since the beginning of this year, part of a five-person team tasked with clearing and collecting old cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance, Mr. Ratana said.

“CMAC doesn’t deal with new weapons,” he said. “We just collect abandoned weapons.”

Asked whether the suspect had illegally collected recovered weapons through his work with CMAC, Mr. Ratana said the organization had no such evidence.

The decision about whether to remove ordnance or destroy it where it is found is tightly controlled by the team leader, for whom Mr. Vireak would have worked, Mr. Ratana said.

Chet Vanny, deputy Battambang police chief, said no weapons were found at Mr. Vireak’s home in Battambang City.

Ben Sam Ath, police chief of Banteay Meanchey’s Malai district, said another suspect, Chin Lin, a 36-year-old farmer, confessed that he helped transport the weapons. Mr. Lin’s Nissan pickup truck was impounded by Banteay Meanchey police on Friday in Battambang’s Sampov Loun district, Mr. Sam Ath said.

Sok Keo Bandith, Banteay Meanchey’s deputy prosecutor, said the three suspects, who were being held at the provincial police headquarters, would be questioned again today.

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