Search Begins for Missing R’kiri Forest Rangers

Five forest rangers were dispatched into Ratanakkiri province’s Virachey National Park on Wed­nesday to search for three of their colleagues who went missing last week, Provincial Deputy Governor Chey Sayoeun said.

Chey Sayoeun declined to name the three missing rangers, but said Thursday by telephone that they were sent on Jan 2 into the national park, also known as the Dragon’s Tail, to do a follow-up investigation on suspected illegal logging.

Some­time last week, Chey Sa­yoeun said, forestry officials lost radio contact with the three men. Rumors have been circulating among provincial rangers that the three men are dead, Chey Sayoeun said.

“Our concern is not at a top level yet,” he said. “But we worry about their safety if they met bad people [illegally logging] in the forest.”

On Dec 23, provincial authorities sent a 10-member team into the national park to investigate fresh complaints of illegal logging, but the team returned claiming they found nothing to verify the complaints, Chey Sayoeun said.

However, complaints continued to come in following the initial investigation, so the three rangers, now missing, were sent in to reinvestigate, he added.

Chou Sopheak, director of both the provincial environment department and Virachey National Park, said by telephone that he is still hopeful the missing rangers are safe.

“As per their experience and habit, [rangers] usually come back within 15 days,” he said.

Provincial police chief Ray Rai said that his office was aware of the men’s disappearance and is investigating as well, but suspects that the men are either lost or were attacked by a wild animal.

“I do not think any people disturbed them because there is no one living there,” he maintained.

In 2004, the 332,500-hectare protected park was at the center of a massive logging scandal, which saw thousands of trees felled and trucked to neighboring Vietnam.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court in late 2006 sentenced a park ranger and three border police officers to five years each in prison for their roles in the Dragon’s Tail logging scandal.

Seven others, including the park’s former director, Khoy Sokha, former provincial governor Kham Khoeun and senior military and border police fled, and were sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison each.

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