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Shipping halts after killing of Chinese crew

By Zha Minjie   (Shanghai Daily)

08:54, October 11, 2011

Shanghai--Shipping on the Mekong River has been suspended following the hijacking of two cargo ships last Wednesday in the "Golden Triangle," where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, the maritime affairs department of southwest China's Yunnan Province said yesterday.

Thai authorities have confirmed that 11 Chinese crew on the two ships were killed and identified the killers as a drug trafficking ring operating on the river. Two Chinese sailors are still missing.

Investigators said that at least two of 13 bodies recovered from the river did not match the descriptions of the Chinese sailors.

The recovery of the 13th body yesterday morning had at first led authorities to believe all the sailors had been killed.

A total of 116 of the 130 ships engaged in international shipping on the river are operated by Chinese companies, the Lancang River Maritime Affairs Bureau said.

Yunnan's maritime affairs department, along with relevant non-governmental organizations in the province, have begun to help Chinese crew return to China safely and adopt proper measures to protect Chinese ships, Xinhua news agency reported.

The 11 Chinese sailors died when their boats, the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, were hijacked on the Mekong River by gang members to move large amounts of drugs last Wednesday.

Thai Pha Meung Task Force border troops captured the two ships later the same day and seized some 951,000 methamphetamine pills after a gunfight with the drug traffickers in Chiang Saen District, bordering Myanmar.

In an online post, a ship owner who wished to remain anonymous said he did not witness the hijackings but managed to get pictures from friends who later boarded the boats.

He believed the "Chinese crews were held hostage as the hijackers later confronted and exchanged fire with Thai police or military."

He said the attack "could be the result of revenge" as one of the boats had been recruited by the Myanmar government and used to crack down on river robbers.

The Bangkok Post yesterday quoted Thai army officials as saying a gang run by suspected ethnic Shan drug trafficker Nor Kham was believed to be behind the attacks. It said the gang demands protection money from ships it hijacks on the Mekong and kills crew members who refuse to cooperate.

One gang member was killed on the Yu Xing 8 during the firefight. The others managed to flee overboard, according to the Post.

In the days following the incident, bodies of Chinese sailors were found floating in the river with some "handcuffed, tied and blindfolded."

Pictures posted online showed bullet holes on the bodies.

Guo Zhiqiang, a part owner of the Yu Xing 8, said it never occurred to him that the boat "would be attacked like that" though he knew the river was not safe.

"Robbery happens all the time," said Guo, who has been involved in the transport business on the river for more than 10 years.

Guo, who wasn't on the boat, traveled to Yunnan, the closest Chinese province to the river area to meet family members of the crew. Guo's boat is Myanmar-registered but all the crew were Chinese. The families are currently waiting to go to Thailand.

Guo said the captain had broadcast that someone was hurt and to "call the police at once" at noon last Wednesday but contact was lost.

Guo later learned the two boats had been boarded by armed hijackers.

Nor Kham, 40, who is wanted on Thai and Myanmar arrest warrants for drugs trafficking, expanded his illegal activities to collect protection money from Chinese-flagged cargo ships a few years ago, according to the Bangkok Post.

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