Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chinese Patrol Boat On Mekong Attacked By Armed Gang

An unidentified armed group attacked a Chinese patrol boat on the Mekong river yesterday morning, injuring three Chinese police officers. One of the injured, now being treated at a hospital in Chiang Rai, told Thai officials the attackers appeared in uniforms similar to those of Burmese soldiers. However, the identity of the attackers was unknown. ''This is a very sensitive international issue because the ambush occurred at a spot near the borders of many countries,'' said Chiang Rai governor Preecha Kamolbutr as he visited the three victims at the hospital yesterday. The Chinese boat was patrolling the river where it flows between Burma and Laos, under a regional cooperation scheme aimed at fighting drug trafficking in an area renowned for opium and now a major producer of amphetamines. A second boat carrying half a dozen suspected drug traffickers opened fire as it approached the Chinese vessel, near the border between Burma and Laos, about 10 kilometres to the north of Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district, navy officials said. As the boats neared, the attackers boarded the Chinese craft, shooting and stabbing some of the six police before jumping back on their own vessel to escape, said Commander Pakorn Pothichai of the Thai Navy Mission for the Mekong. The clash lasted about five minutes.The officer said the gang was believed to be working to protect a drugs shipment on the river. ''Chinese officials apparently had a tip-off about a drugs delivery, so the traffickers were trying to stop them,'' he said. Yesterday's attack occurred at the same time as a meeting of the Thai-Burma Township Border Committee (TBC) was held at a hotel in the town of Tachilek in Burma. Thai officials and their Burmese counterparts discussed the incident and were gravely concerned. ''The Burmese officials insisted there were no Burmese soldiers in the ambush area,'' said Phamuang task force commander Maj-Gen Chavalit Sirikit. However, Burmese officials admitted the area was under the supervision of an ethnic minority group, led by Knorkham. They said the group had already surrendered to the junta government and has been appointed as a volunteer group to keep order in the area. Sources said Knorkham is a former aid of late drug kingpin Khun Sa, the leader of the now-defunct Mong Tai Army (MTA) rebel group. The armed group led by Knorkham allegedly extorted money from vendors in Tachilek and tried to expand its influence to other business areas in Laos and along the Mekong. His group often appeared in Burmese soldier's uniforms, the sources added. Knorkham is also on the wanted list of Thai drug suppression officials. ''Suspects in a heroin case told police the drug belonged to Knorkham,'' said an official of the Office of Narcotics Control Board, referring to a drugs bust in late 2005.

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