ponhea krek district, Kompong Cham province – Behind the gates of CC3 prison on Thursday morning, guards hurriedly buried the bodies of all 17 inmates reportedly killed in Wednesday’s chaotic jailbreak and prevented reporters from entering the compound to verify the death toll.
Deputy Prison Chief Kea Sovanna, who claimed to have been among four prison officials taken hostage and stabbed by inmates in the botched and bloody escape attempt, said the dead were being buried instead of being cremated, as authorities had originally scheduled.
“We are waiting for the offenders’ parents to see whether they want [the bodies] to be cremated,” Kea Sovanna said by phone from behind the prison walls, as reporters waited in vain outside for nearly four hours for him to emerge.
In each grave, guards buried the prisoners’ names in bottles to identify their remains if they are later dug up and cremated, he said. They needed to bury the bodies quickly so as not to upset the other inmates, Kea Sovanna maintained.
On Wednesday, police officials reported that about 20 or 30 armed guards had gunned down 20 prisoners with AK-47 assault rifles during the escape attempt, while about 30 more prisoners escaped.
But by Thursday, officials were reporting that 17 inmates were dead, three were seriously injured and more than 20 were on the run.
Kea Sovanna would not release the names of the dead.
“We are very busy,” he said. “Maybe next week or later on.”
The violence began at about 2:10 pm on Wednesday when a delegation—comprised of Kea Sovanna, CC3 prison Chief Sun Buna, Deputy Chief of the Interior Ministry’s prison department Huy Tork, and guard You Chaytong—was reportedly stabbed and taken hostage by more than 50 inmates who attacked in the prison’s handicrafts workshop wielding knives and work tools .
With their hostages in tow, the inmates made their way through the first of the prison’s three gates, commandeering four vehicles owned by the hostages and the prison, and drove through the second gate, officials said.
As the prisoners approached the final gate, guards that had amassed opened fired with automatic weapons, killing 17 inmates instantly. About 20 managed to jump the outer fence and flee, they said.
Prison guards interviewed on Thursday said that the prisoners’ four hostages were injured during the escape, but, unusually, not by the barrage of gunshots that apparently killed only their 17 captors.
Huy Tork and Sun Buna were seriously wounded by the prisoners’ knives and chisels and were brought to Vietnam for treatment, they said.
Kea Sovanna said that during the jailbreak, he was knifed and required eight stitches to the head, neck and stomach. He said he suffered wounds to his hand as well, but because he would not meet journalists, his injuries could not be verified.
Outside the prison Thursday morning, all appeared calm except for three truckloads of police officers who were seen exiting the compound. No police or prison officials could be seen scouring the area for escapees.
From the outer gate on Thursday reporters could see a Toyota pickup truck, a Toyota Camry and a black Mercedes-Benz sedan inside the compound.
The front tires of both the pickup and the Camry were shot out, as were their back right tires. Minimal damage appeared on the bodies of the vehicles. Only two or three bullet holes could be seen to have punctured their sides.
A brown-colored smear of dried blood coated the headrest of the passenger seat of the Camry and the bed of the truck. A pool of blood was also smeared across the guard’s post, and several pairs of flip-flops, cast-away prison garb, and two large knives, one smeared with blood, lay in the scrub outside the prison.
Otherwise, there was little evidence of the apparent carnage of the day before.
Guards interviewed explained the uncannily small amount of damage inflicted to the alleged getaway vehicles by the automatic weapons fire, saying the unknown number of guards who opened fire were “sharpshooters,” expertly trained to aim accurately.
But residents of nearby Trapeang Phlong village who witnessed the aftermath of the incident said they saw each of the prisoner’s bodies riddled with at least three bullets in the chests, backs and stomachs.
Diep Dimong, 18, said he saw five dead prisoners laying near the road outside the prison walls and another injured man with a bullet in his hand.
In the pickup, Diep Dimong said he saw one dead prisoner inside, and in the Camry, three others were dead.
Chea Thorn, 30, said some died in their blue-and-white prison uniforms. The dead were aged between about 20 and 40, he said.
“I did not see any police injured,” he added.
Villagers said police had arranged for a truck to gather wood in order to hold a quick mass cremation of the dead prisoners in an open area near their homes Wednesday night, but a group of protesting residents stopped them.
“They did not come to ask villagers for permission,” Chum Boeun, 42, said. “We are against the cremation because the wind will carry the ashes over our houses, and we cannot sleep.”
Sao Sros, first deputy police chief of Kompong Cham province, said National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy and his deputies Neth Savoeun and Sak Sitha arrived at CC3 by helicopter within an hour of the incident and left again shortly afterward. He declined to say what, if any, orders they gave.
Sao Sros said that five escapees had been rearrested and 20 others were still at large.
He declined to comment on whether any of the prisoners who survived the jailbreak, or any guards involved in the shooting, would be reprimanded.
“I have no comment. Leave it up to the Interior Ministry spokesman,” he said.
Calls to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak were unsuccessful Thursday.