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Kratie Demonstration Area Sealed as Police Arrest Leaders

Sam Souen, an 86 year-old Cambodian woman, holds a banner asking Prime Minister Hun Sen, seen in photo at left, to help solve the problem of land grabbing, which reads "We have been victimized by land grabbing in Banteay Meanchey province" as she and othe

Authorities in Kratie province have denied entry to journalists and rights workers to the site of violent land clashes that led to the death of a teenage girl on Wednesday.

Rights workers say they fear for the safety of villagers in Broma village, but police say they have arrested four leaders of demonstrations against a rubber concession in the area.

Those arrested were Khat Sovann, 54, Pum Vannak, 53, Pon Soeurn, 34, and an unnamed fourth suspect.

The men were being questioned by the provincial police Wednesday and are accused of seeking to set up an autonomous zone, said Chhoung Seanghak, Kratie’s police chief. The four suspects will be brought before the provincial court on Friday, he said.

Police are seeking a fifth man, national police spokesman Khieu Sopheak said. He urged local rights organizations and other groups not to harbor him.

The concession area has seen continued unrest in recent days, with around 200 families facing the threat of forced eviction to make way for a rubber plantation. Villagers wielding axes and other weapons clashed with state security forces, who fired live ammunition to quell the unrest, witnesses said Wednesday.

Fourteen-year-old Heng Chantha was killed in the gunfire that morning, in an incident that brought condemnation from international and local organizations.

In a statement Wednesday, Patrick Alley, director of the international watchdog Global Witness, called Cambodia’s continued land clashes “out of control.”

“The international community must act now before more people are killed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fate of the remaining families in the area remains unclear. Journalists and rights workers have been barred from the area, said Am Sam Ath, an investigator for the rights group Licadho. Authorities have told them they need to calm the situation, he said.

This is at least the fourth incident involving gun violence on civilians this year, including the shooting death of environmental activist Chut Wutty last month and the shooting injuries of three women at a garment factory protest in February.

“The fact that yesterday’s protest turned violent is not an excuse for the use of such disproportionate force against civilians,” the rights group Adhoc said in a statement. “Many of them, including the victim, were children and were not at the site of the protest. Adhoc therefore calls on the authorities to thoroughly and impartially investigate the circumstances of the shooting and to hold perpetrators responsible.”