Three hundred soldiers are hunting for a gang of armed bandits who have carried out several robberies and terrorized villagers living in secluded areas of the northeastern part of the country, authorities and rights workers said Monday.
Investigators suspect four robberies that occurred between September and December are linked and involved members of the same armed gang, who dress in military uniforms and are armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
Mondolkiri Provincial Governor Lay Sokha said gang members, who could number as many as 10, have barged into homes, robbing victims of money and jewelry and leaving witnesses tied up.
Three of the robberies occurred in Mondolkiri’s Keo Sema district, he said, though he would not disclose specific dates or locations.
“We are using our RCAF soldiers to hunt them; in total, 300 soldiers,” Lay Sokha said.
Investigators believe the gang, which has been operational for about four months, is based in the forests of Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri or Kratie provinces in between their crimes, he said.
“I will not allow them to rob people in my province,” he added.
So far, the bandits have shown restraint and no one has been killed or hurt in the robberies, said So Sovann, Mondolkiri’s deputy provincial police chief.
Investigators believe the gang initially started with only five people, but grew over time, So Sovann said, adding that it may even be two separate groups committing similar crimes.
Though declining to give details of the robberies, So Sovann said his officers exchanged gunfire with one group of robbers in October.
Kratie Provincial Police Chief Chuong Seang Hak said the last acts of banditry in his province, which was notorious during the 1990s for armed robberies, ended with the capture of a gang in Kompong Cham province in 2007.
Sam Sarin, coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Mondolkiri, said the upsurge in robberies in the traditionally safe northeast of the country is surprising.
“It is very strange for our people because in Mondolkiri it is far between villages, and it is usually a very quiet place,” he said.