Cambodia police claim 'suicide' in forest shootings

PHNOM PENH - A Cambodian military police officer shot himself twice in the chest after gunning down a prominent activist, officials said Friday, in a surprise explanation for the two deaths in a remote forest.

Chhut Vuthy, president of the Natural Resource Conservation Group, was documenting illegal logging with two female journalists on Thursday when a confrontation broke out with military police who tried to confiscate his camera's memory card.

"The military police officer fatally shot Chhut Vuthy and when he realised he had made a mistake and could not flee from the law, he decided to kill himself," said Kheng Tito, spokesman for the national military police.

He added that the officer, who was armed with an assault rifle, "shot himself twice, once in the stomach, once near his nipple".

Outspoken, long-time land activist Chhut Vuthy, 43, who had military police training, had a handgun on him, Kheng Tito said of the incident in southwestern Koh Kong province.

The explanation of the incident was greeted with incredulity by activists contacted by AFP who did not wish to be named.

Local human rights group Licadho told AFP that the information its team had collected on the ground "contradicts statements made by officials" and called for a "thorough and impartial investigation".

The two reporters from the English-language Cambodia Daily who witnessed the incident have not made any public statements yet.

Local and international rights groups have reacted with dismay to Chhut Vuthy's death.

He "was one of the few remaining Cambodian activists willing to speak out against the rapid escalation of illegal logging and land grabbing," said Global Witness director Patrick Alley in a statement.

"The extent of the risks he and other activists face has been laid bare in the most shocking and tragic manner."

Land disputes have been on the rise in recent years in Cambodia and have become increasingly violent although they rarely result in deaths.

Over the last six months Licadho documented five shooting incidents involving land activists, causing 19 injuries, though the last death was in April 2010.

Environmental groups and human rights campaigners have long accused the Cambodian government of selling off land to the highest bidder.

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