Phnom Penh, Nov. 3 (Reuters): One person died and one was wounded in an unfolding hostage drama in northwest Cambodia today, officials said, as the country mounted its biggest ever peacetime security operation for a summit of regional leaders.
Cambodian forces exchanged fire with four gunmen who took nearly 20 people hostage, including children, late yesterday in a remote hospital in the tiny Southeast Asian nation and demanded money and vehicles.
“Sorry, I can’t talk now — we’re shooting,” deputy provincial police chief Peov Sidon said.
The four unidentified men, posing as patients, entered the hospital carrying a case of AK-47 assault rifles and shot a doctor in the leg, a senior local official said. After a 15-hour standoff, one of the patients died of heart trouble, the deputy provincial governor said.
“The four pretended to be patients, and pulled out rifles and held patients and doctors at gunpoint,” Nhek Bunchhon, deputy governor of Bontey Meanchey province, around 200 km northwest of Phnom Penh, said.
Police at first believed only 10 patients and staff had been taken hostage, but revised that total when they discovered some relatives had been visiting the hospital.
The drama comes at a difficult time for Cambodia as it hosts 14 leaders, including heads of government from China, Japan, India and South Korea, in Phnom Penh, with the focus of their summit on beefing up anti-terror efforts in the region.
As darkness fell today, military police brought to the remote jungle region by helicopter moved in on the hospital and exchanged fire with the hostage-takers. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Asian leaders are to sign a declaration vowing to crack down on militants who have wrecked a deadly toll on the region in recent weeks, agreeing the step is essential for security and to lift their people out of poverty.
Today’s initial session, at which the six countries bordering the Mekong river focused on development and trade flows, will be followed on Monday and Tuesday by a summit of leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China, Japan and South Korea.
The summit in Cambodia aims to promote economic integration, discuss terror and paper over cracks that perennially open up among member states that range from impoverished Laos to oil-rich Brunei and regional giant Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Security, including the threat from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, will take centre stage this year in the wake of the Bali bomb blasts.
“Security is very important, otherwise this won’t mean much,” said ASEAN secretary-general Rodolfo Severino.
Most nations are likely to agree that without the ability to ensure the safety of their two billion people, they can make little headway on promoting tourism and foreign investment or signing a planned deal with China to create the world’s largest free trade zone.