A 45-year-old driver for Kyodo News Service was slain in a hail of gunfire Thursday night outside the Ministry of Interior compound, where opposition leader Sam Rainsy had been standing some 10 minutes before.
The slaying shattered the relatively peaceful post-election calm and raised the stakes for a massive opposition rally planned Sunday throughout the capital.
The attack followed a series of confrontations between Sam Rainsy Party supporters—who were attempting to sleep at the Interior Ministry compound with election ballots—and policemen, witnesses said.
Immediately after the attack Sam Rainsy was detained inside the Interior Ministry compound for three hours, alarming his family, human rights groups and the UN, who feared for his safety.
“They threatened to kill us many times….I thought I was going to be another Ho Sok tonight,” Sam Rainsy said at 2:10 am as he was leaving the compound with UN escort. Ho Sok was the Funcinpec general slain at the compound last year.
Sieng Sean, who had worked for Kyodo since the Untac era, was struck by bullets or shrapnel from a grenade in the back of the head at about 11:15 pm on Norodom Boulevard as he waited for his colleague to emerge from interviewing Sam Rainsy, according to police and witnesses.
Sieng Sean was shot behind his white Kyodo News truck and declared dead at 11:25 pm.
Witnesses said the gunshots and grenade came from two men in a Nissan pick-up speeding north on Norodom.
One man in the back fired four or five bullets from a handgun and then tossed a hand grenade from the back of the truck. It exploded in the middle of the street, witnesses said.
Sam Rainsy—who was several hundred meters from the attack— was detained with other party officials for questioning, and was not released until after 2 am this morning.
“After an explosion, you have to take a statement,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said at 1:45 am, explaining the detention of Sam Rainsy. “We suspect this might be an attempt to stir trouble. But we assume nothing.”
Khieu Kanharith said a complaint would be filed with the municipal court today because Sam Rainsy entered the ministry compound after hours.
The dissident was talking to more than a dozen journalists outside the National Election Committee building, which is located inside the Interior Ministry, when they heard a grenade explode. Sam Rainsy was preparing to sleep outside the election headquarters with party members who were guarding ballots from the July 26 polls.
“From the information I have, they were at least trying to scare Rainsy off, or perhaps trying to kill him,” Rainsy’s wife, Tioulong Samuara, said early this morning.
Sam Rainsy set up a bed and mosquito net outside the NEC building between 9 and 9:30 pm, according to party workers. But he left his post for the Interior Ministry gate about 10:30 pm to see several journalists, including the Kyodo correspondent, who were not initially allowed in.
Sam Rainsy was prevented temporarily from returning to the NEC.
Once back inside the compound, Rainsy workers became increasingly panicked at the growing number of soldiers arriving at the ministry, Samaura said.
Immediately after the explosion, Rainsy called his wife and had Interior co-Minister You Hockry on another phone at the same time, telling the official that he was in danger and to “Please help, uncle,” Saumura said.
Several minutes after the explosion, witnesses said Interior Ministry guards pointed their guns at Sam Rainsy—who raised his hands—and fired one round near Rainsy’s feet. Party member Oung Manit said Sam Rainsy fell to the ground and was kicked by guards.
Several journalists were also briefly detained.
The driver, Sieng Sean, was waiting in his car for much of the night, said Ros Vatha, a driver and assistant for Yomiri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. But he got out of his vehicle just before the attack to urinate.
He was shot as he was returning to his car. “The assailants fire randomly,” Ros Vatha said.
Sieng Sean is survived by his wife, Sean Knhara, a daughter and two sons. Family members sobbed near the body about midnight.
“My father never had a quarrel with anyone,” said Sean San, 20, one of the victim’s sons. “Perhaps it is related to politics. I am very shocked, and almost cannot speak. I just had dinner with him this evening.”
Amnesty International immediately condemned “yet more reports of violence on the streets of Phnom Penh.”
“Clearly, they want to frighten people away from coming to the demonstration on Sunday,” said Rich Garella, Rainsy’s spokesman. “They are desperately afraid of having a real investigation into what’s inside the ballot bags.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd, Mhari Saito, Kay Johnson, Catherine Philp)
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