Police Turf War Blamed For Gunfire

Hard feelings between military police and anti-drug police, perhaps over recent drug crackdowns, were blamed for gunfire in downtown Phnom Penh on Friday night, topping off a week of violence in the capital.

Heavily armed Phnom Penh military policemen in two trucks surrounded Interpol headquarters near Street 172 and Pasteur at about 9:30 pm Friday, minutes after seven of their colleagues had been disarmed and detained for allegedly making threats against national anti-drug police.

Military police with assault rifles opened fire on the Interpol headquarters and on the nearby residence of Heng Peo, deputy chief of national anti-drug police, witnesses said.

One bullet went into the wall of the bedroom where Heng Peo was said to be sleeping at the time. No casualties were reported.

Military police carried at least one B-40 rocket, although it wasn’t fired, according to a drug official. At least one grenade was launched. Military police retreat ed when a special national police unit and drug police fired into the air, officials said.

Ministry of Interior officials met Saturday to investigate and defuse the dispute.

“The problem has been

solved,” Em Sam An, Interior secretary of state, claimed Sunday morning. He added that he had ordered the parties not to provoke each other into additional confrontations.

Both he and Khuon Sophan, chief of municipal penal police, characterized the dispute as personal, not political.

Heng Peo and other drug officials said they believed the attack was an act of revenge for increased crackdowns on illegal drug activities, some of which have involved military police. Last week, in Kandal province, a military policeman was sentenced to 10 years on drug charges.

“It is revenge from the criminals for what I’ve been doing to prevent the drug trade,” Heng Peo said Saturday.

A private security officer in Phnom Penh familiar with the rivalries between Cambodia’s security forces said the clash was likely the result of a recent arrest or investigation.

“The international community is pushing Cambodia’s Interpol to take action against cross-border criminal activity, and if you do that you are going to find military police units protecting operations,” said the security officer, who asked not to be named.

Friday night’s gunfire went on sporadically for approximately 15 minutes and was heard and seen blocks away, witnesses said. It capped the most intense week of violence in the capital since the factional fighting last July.

In the span of seven days, three were killed in a drug bust, a Funcinpec general was murdered and a bomb armed with three B-40 rockets was planted in a sugar-cane cart near the Central Post Office. The week also was marked by the conviction of deposed first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh on charges of illegally importing weapons.

Among those who agreed that Friday night’s shooting was fueled by turf rivalries between military and anti-drug police, there were differing views as to who prompted the clash.

The events apparently started when a group of municipal military police armed with pistols stopped to drink beer at a small family-owned restaurant across the street from Interpol headquarters.

Neighbors allegedly overheard the military policemen making threats to shoot at the anti-drug police, and notified Interpol officials. Anti-drug officials said they reported the threats to the national police, which sent a unit to confiscate the pistols and detain   seven military policemen.

Shortly after the seven were detained, two groups of military police arrived in trucks with AK-47s and grenade launchers. They shot at the fence outside Interpol, piercing the corrugated aluminum fence in 15 spots.

They also went down the road to Pasteur Street and fired on Heng Peo’s house, shattering the back windshield of his truck and blowing a hole in one of the thick window panes leading to a bedroom.

On Saturday, Heng Peo’s residence was surrounded by armed guards. Heng Peo showed where the bullet entered the room and went through the wall near the bed. He said he had been sleeping in the bedroom at the time. After the shooting, he fled to another part of the house.

“For myself, I’m not scared,” he said of Friday’s shooting and telephone threats against him. “But I’m scared for my family.”

Heng Peo said he will ease the anti-drug enforcement efforts.

“I’ve made the crackdowns on the drug dealers for the sake of the nation,” Heng Peo said. “But in the end, I receive such suffering from the criminals. I’m leaving the responsibility for the higher leaders to solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, back at the Interpol compound, the seven original military policemen were seen late Saturday morning still in their green military uniforms, resting in hammocks and on cots.

They said they had been detained for a few hours under the watch of national police with AK-47s, and weren’t yet allowed to go home because a superior at Phnom Penh Military Police headquarters had ordered them to stay put.

The military policemen acknowledged they were armed when drinking at the restaurant the night before, but denied that they had made any threats against the anti-drug police.

“We were arrested for no reason,” one said. “We didn’t say anything about the drug police.”

(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd)

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