Police Under Gun for Rapid-Fire Responses

As residents of the capital express concern over the capital’s latest crime wave, police are drawing fire for two of last weekend’s high-profile shoot-outs.

An eyewitness, who asked not to be named Tuesday for fear of retribution from police officials, said Friday night’s shoot-out near the Phnom Penh railway station endangered the victims’ lives.

The witness—a Belgian man— and his female Cambodian companion were being robbed when police turned a corner and opened fire at the robbers, who were less than a meter away from the victims.

The Cambodian woman was shot in the stomach by the robbers, who were then chased by police. Two were later killed and a third captured.

After the shooting, police refused to aid the woman and tried to prevent the Belgian from taking her to the hospital, the eyewitness said. The Belgian took his wounded companion to the hospital, where she had part of her intestine and bladder removed.

Chea Saren, deputy security police chief for Phnom Penh, said the police had to fire on the robbers because they intended to shoot the victims.

A second high-profile shoot-out between a national anti-drug squad and alleged drug dealers resulted in a gun battle on the busy street in front of Lucky Market on Sunday.

A Western security expert expressed concern Monday that the sting operation spilled out onto Sihanouk Boulevard. “If this kind of thing continues to occur, it will result in someone getting wounded for sure,” he said.

One of the alleged drug dealers fled into a building where he was cornered for one hour.

In the meantime, a crowd of 300 to 400 onlookers had gathered, Alan Drew, co-owner of the nearby Ettamogah Pub said Tuesday. “Common sense says the police should have cleared the people out of the way,” he said. When a second burst of gunfire and hand-grenade blasts began an hour later, police had not cleared anyone away or blocked off the streets, he said.

The security officer said armed robberies targeting foreigners continue to rise, and there are probably many more that go unreported because foreigners believe that police will ask them for money to file a report. Most of the victims are passengers on motorcycles, he said.

“Khmers also have a lot of problems. Khmers not only lose their money, but they lose their bikes,” he added.

Chris Ho, president of the Malaysian Business Council and the man who spearheaded the “Back in Business: Seeing Is Believing,” campaign designed to convince the outside world that Cambodia is a safe place to visit, says the crime wave threatens tourism and investment.

Ho, though, believes criminals target residents, not tourists staying in secure hotels.

“Because Phnom Penh is such a small community, [crimes] become the talk of the town. But we are quite alarmed by it.”

Residents should be more vigilant, he said. “We don’t want to alarm the international community. But playing it safe is in everybody’s favor.”

So Mara, director-general at the Ministry of Tourism, said the ministry is “very upset” about the increase in crime.

“Everyone realizes that tourism is a major income earner here. We have to treat our visitors like kings,” he said Tuesday, a day after returning from a tourism conference in Japan where he said he was quizzed often about safety in Cambodia.

King Samnang, deputy director of the national police, said Tuesday police have been cracking down on armed robberies during the last two weeks. He said police were working undercover on motorbikes to catch the robbers, but he cited lack of funds to pay for police work as a problem.

Random checkpoints, which appeared on Phnom Penh streets shortly after Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eight-point security plan was announced, were effective in seizing illegal weapons, the Western security  expert said.

Hun Sen, in a speech last August, made security his top priority and pinned his position on its improvement.

“I will resign from my post as second prime minister if I cannot follow through with the order to implement the eight-point security plan,” Hun Sen said.

The eight-point plan was designed to improve security by cracking down on prostitution, gambling, illegal checkpoints and violent crime.

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)

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