Police in Preah Vihear province on Monday arrested six men suspected of being involved in the fatal shooting of a police officer and a Forestry Administration ranger early Saturday morning while they were sleeping during a patrol for illegal loggers in Preah Roka forest.
Sap Yous, a police officer in Chheb district, and Seang Narong, a Forestry Administration ranger in Chheb division, were shot dead in their hammocks at about 1:30 a.m. by a group of men who escaped into the surrounding forest, according to the account of another officer who survived the attack with a bullet to the buttocks.
On Monday, deputy provincial police chief Khat Hun said his officers arrested six men whom the surviving officer, Phet Sophoan, claimed to have seen logging illegally in the same area during previous patrols. Mr. Hun said the men were apprehended near the murder scene and that all six denied involvement.
“The six people deny shooting our officers, but the court has recommended that we accuse them of illegal logging,” he said. “We will not release the six people because we are sure they gunned down the officers, but we don’t have the evidence to [formally] accuse them of it.”
Mr. Hun said the suspects did, however, confess to logging in the area for a wood dealer known only as Thoeun who paid them $35 per cubic meter of first-grade Phchoek and Koki timber.
On Sunday, Mr. Sophoan told a reporter that he suspected their assailants were soldiers from Division 3 of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces because a forest patrol had arrested members of the unit for illegal logging in the same area a few months earlier.
But Mr. Hun said Monday that all six of the arrested men were civilians.
“The six people are not soldiers. They are just normal people who were hired by timber dealers,” he said.
He identified the suspects as Sok Bunroeun, 42; Sok Chea, 21; Nguon Choun, 27; Nop Pros, 29; Srun Rin, 44; and Ri Yes, 51, and said most of them were from Banteay Meanchey province.
Chap Sok, who heads the Forestry Administration’s Choam Ksan division, where the shooting occurred, said illegal logging in Preah Roka had been on the rise in recent years and accused local soldiers of protecting the offenders, if not logging themselves.
“We never see the faces of the loggers because they escape when they see us,” he said. “We have heard that some soldiers protect the loggers, but we don’t have evidence to accuse them of being involved in the logging because they don’t let us arrest them.”
Soldiers are often caught smuggling timber across the country, and frequently end up in police reports for coming to the rescue of illegal loggers. But the fatal shooting of officers and rangers by loggers has been very rare; the Forestry Administration said Saturday’s incident was the first of its kind in about 20 years.
Asked Monday about the suspected involvement of local soldiers in Saturday’s shooting, both Division 3 commander Srey Doek and provincial police chief Si Kiri hung up on a reporter.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been working in Preah Roka since 2000, helping to train forest patrollers and providing them with nonlethal equipment. In a statement Monday, the NGO said it had been working with Sap Yous since 2009 and with Seang Narong since last year.
Ross Sinclair, WCS country program director, said the area where the men were shot was an illegal logging “hot spot,” being a patch of evergreen forest packed with high-value trees. Located between the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary to the west and the Preah Vihear Protected Forest to the north and east, he said Preah Roka—with his group’s help—was probably just a few months away from official protected status.
Mr. Sinclair said a review of the security measures used during forest patrols would be “prudent,” but added that with the investigation ongoing, it was too soon to make specific recommendations.
While Forestry Administration rangers are not allowed to carry weapons, he said, the soldiers and police who accompany them on patrols are armed as a matter of course.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)