Spilled Jet Fuel Prompts King To Delay Trip

Hun Sen Sacks Top RAC Officials for Bungling Flight

A fueling mishap that prompted King Norodom Sihanouk to cancel his Royal Air Cambodge flight to Beijing on Tuesday ended with Prime Minister Hun Sen firing the airline’s two top managers.

“I ordered the immediate re­moval of the chairman and vice chairman of [RAC] this morning,” Hun Sen said at the National Assembly, a short time after jet fuel was spotted gushing from the aircraft’s left wing onto the tarmac.

No one was hurt in the incident, which occurred Tuesday morning as the RAC Boeing 737 was being fueled for the King’s planned flight to China. The 77-year-old monarch was escorted back into the terminal, and ultimately decided to delay his trip until next week.

The mishap could not have occurred at a worse time for beleaguered RAC, which has lost more than $25 million in recent years and has been plagued by equipment problems and complaints.

Dozens of top government officials, gathered to bid the King farewell, watched in dismay as about 30 liters of jet fuel spilled to the ground. A clearly furious prime minister began barking orders into his mobile phone.

Hun Sen said he suspected an act of “political terrorism” aimed at the government and the King, noting the several highly critical allegations recently lodged against the royal family and the government.

“I have called for a serious investigation led by the National Police Chief,” the premier said.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh said he appreciated Hun Sen’s actions but that firing might not be enough. “This mistake should not be forgiven by such a firing,” he said.

“They should be prosecuted… as a good example for other leaders in government, to make sure they take responsibility,” the Prince said.

RAC Chairman Pan Chantra later said the fueling mishap was just an unfortunate mistake and that the King was not in any danger. “We are very sorry,” he said in a phone interview.

Pan Chantra said he was taking a wait-and-see approach regarding Hun Sen’s order to have his job terminated. “I have not seen any document saying I am fired,” he said.

He said he tried to defend RAC’s actions, but the government would not listen. “I explained to them, but they don’t care,” he said. He would not identify his vice-chairman.

Pan Chantra said the incident occurred because the plane was parked perpendicular to its usual location as a convenience to the King. The pavement in the new location sloped slightly, causing the fuel gauges to read incorrectly.

“It was lower on one side, and the gauge said it wasn’t full, when in fact it was,” Pan Chantra said. As maintenance crews continued to pump fuel into the full tank, the excess spilled out through the release valve, he said.

Pan Chantra said the plane the King was to fly to Beijing is a new vehicle, operated by Malaysian Airlines personnel.

This incident “probably” hurt RAC’s image, he admitted, “but this aircraft is not maintained by Cambodians, but by Malaysian engineers.”

Last year, a review of Cambodia’s domestic flight safety standards by the International Civil Aviation Organization concluded the country’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation does not have the resources to properly oversee air safety.

Hun Sen has publicly blasted the airline for what he claims is its shoddy performance and treatment of customers.

In May he complained about RAC’s frequent flight cancellations after alleged maintenance checks grounded most of its fleet and cut services to all provincial airports except Siem Reap.  Hun Sen said he didn’t care if the airline folded.

The King plans a two-month stay in Beijing, where he maintains a residence, for medical treatment and rest. He suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, and has been treated for colon cancer.

Prince Ranariddh said last week that recent tests had revealed small amounts of blood in the monarch’s stool.

(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)



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