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Four killed and 23 injured in Cambodia clashes

Police fire live ammunition at mass protest

Four killed and 23 injured in Cambodia clashes

Police pepare to ward off protesters

Abby Seiff and Neou Vannarin, Phnom Penh

January 3, 2014

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Tension that has been escalating for days erupted into violence on Friday morning when military police fired live ammunition during clashes with protesting factory workers, killing at least four and wounding 23 civilians. 

These figures represent the highest number of casualties at the hands of Cambodian police in more than a decade.

Skirmishes between security forces and striking garment workers have occurred repeatedly since workers began leaving their posts on December 24 in protest over the country's minimum wage. Earlier this week it was decided that the minimum wage would be increased to $100 per month, short of the $160 a month recommended by rights groups and labor experts.

Today’s clashes were marked by heavy violence on both sides. They followed a troubled night on the outskirts of Phnom Penh near a number of factories, which climaxed when riot police moved in to quash the ongoing demonstrations.

More than half a dozen protesters gave similar accounts of riot police systematically moving through rental housing that lines the embattled street some time after midnight and dragging out and beating occupants.

In the morning, clashes resumed as protesters blocked the road with container trucks and hundreds of heavily armed riot police moved in.

“First they shot blanks and the protesters were screaming and cheering. But after they ran out of air bullets, they began to shoot the real ones,” said 19-year-old Mien Phay, a striker from a nearby factory.

“They opened fire and just sprayed directly into the crowd,” said Ten Serey, age 20.  

As riot police moved in, protesters retaliated with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Doctors at a nearby clinic allegedly refused to treat a wounded worker, allowing him to bleed to death.

Afterward, protesters set fire to the clinic, dragged beds outside, torched them in the middle of the street, and looted supplies. They also attacked a nearby shop house where they believed a sniper had hidden after shooting dead a protester.

“It’s very dangerous out there and I don’t want it to happen any more,” said the house owner, Seth Senglut, speaking through a jagged tear in his metal door. “They only stopped [attacking the house] after they understood that no one is staying here.”

Riot police armed with automatic weapons descended on the area multiple times on Friday morning, opening fire repeatedly and at one point shooting directly at unarmed protesters seeking refuge on balconies. At least five people were beaten bloody and arrested by riot police, who threw flash grenades and gas canisters to clear areas where non-protesting bystanders looked on.

At least 23 people were wounded by shrapnel and gunshots, and four were killed, according to hospital personnel and rights monitors. 

Rights groups reacted by slamming authorities for their excessive use of force and called for a thorough investigation.

“We condemn this appalling use of extreme lethal force by security forces", said Naly Pilorge, LICADHO Director, in a joint statement issued Friday. “Security forces must now put an immediate end to the use of live ammunition against civilians.”

At the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, friends and family members gathered to await news of victims.

One of them, Bun Neoun, said police made no attempt to speak to protesters before opening fire.

“They just deployed troops, they didn’t talk to any workers, they just started shooting. Even the people in the clinic, they dragged them out and beat them up,” said Neoun, who was shot in the ankle during the clash.

According to Military Police Spokesman Kheng Tito, 11 people were arrested. Of those injured, none were police, he said.

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