A police officer and a Forestry Administration official were shot dead by illegal loggers in Preah Vihear province early Saturday morning in an attack that also left a second officer injured, according to a local official who gave two different versions of the incident.
Contacted Sunday morning, deputy provincial police chief Khat Hun said the officers were patrolling Preah Vihear’s northern Preah Roka Protected Forest and had just confiscated a cache of chainsaws from a group of loggers when they came upon a second group and were attacked.
“Our officials saw a group of three people cutting trees in the Preah Roka Protected Forest. The loggers attacked the officials with an AK-47 and two of the officials were gunned down at the scene,” he said.
Mr. Hun identified the victims as Seang Narong, an official in the Forestry Administration’s Chheb division, and Sap Yous, a Chheb district police officer. He said he was relaying an account of the incident from border police officer Phet Sophoan, who was shot in the buttock but escaped with another uninjured officer.
“I am now questioning the wounded police officer at the provincial hospital to gather information about the shooting,” he said. “We are going to investigate after gathering the information to find the perpetrators, whether they are people who have been arrested before, and who they were logging for.”
Speaking from the hospital, Mr. Sophoan said he did not see the attackers.
“We reached the deep forest and saw that three people were cutting a tree at about 1:30 a.m. Then I heard the sound of shooting from both sides and two of our officials were gunned down. I tried to escape from the shooting but I was shot once in the left buttock with an AK-47,” he said.
“I don’t know exactly how many people there were or how many guns they had because it was so dark,” he said. “I think they might have had two guns because the sound of shooting came from the left and right sides.”
Mr. Sophoan speculated that the assailants may have been a group of revenge-seeking Division 3 soldiers that he and his officers arrested for illegal logging in the area a few months ago.
Contacted again Sunday afternoon to find out if the officers —who were also armed—had shot back at the loggers, however, Mr. Hun, the deputy police chief, said Mr. Sophoan had given him an alternate version of events since the morning.
This time, he said, the officer told him that he and the other three men were all asleep in their hammocks when they were set upon.
“Sophoan told me that the loggers shot Mr. Narong once in the head and shot Mr. Yous once in the chest while they were asleep in their hammocks in the forest,” he said.
“Sophoan gave me the wrong answer when I asked him the first time because he did not dare to tell me the truth,” he added. “The loggers were probably angry because our officials stopped them from logging and confiscated their chainsaws a month ago.”
Police and Forestry Administration officials often complain of confrontations with armed soldiers involved in the country’s rampant illegal logging trade. The fatal shooting of officers by the loggers, however, has been very rare.
Forestry Administration director Chheng Kim Sun said it had been about two decades since one of the administration’s officials had been shot dead by a logger.
“This year we operate very strictly to confiscate the chainsaws, that is why the bad people are very angry at our people,” he said.
Mr. Kim Sun said the shooting might prompt his officials to take more security precautions.
“We need to operate more carefully,” he said. “Maybe the soldiers need to have some people [stand] guard…and maybe we have [bigger] teams.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)