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US Questions Suspension of Cambodian Police Official

The United States Tuesday questioned the suspension of a Cambodian police official involved in the rescue of more than 80 women and girls from a Phnom Penh brothel last week. The case has drawn attention to the problem of sex trafficking in Cambodia.

The United States last week commended the head of Cambodia's Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department for her role in the reported rescue. It is now questioning why the police official, General Un Sokunthea, has been suspended from duty.

In the incident last week, General Un's unit rescued more than 80 women and girls from a Phnom Penh hotel notorious for the sex trafficking in children, and took them to a privately run shelter.

But the next day, a band of gunmen, including several people who had been arrested in the hotel raid but were released without charge, arrived at the shelter and abducted the women and girls along with several others staying there.

The status of the abductees now is unclear but some Cambodian officials maintain they were not sex workers and had voluntarily returned to the hotel.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. embassy in Phnom Pehn is following the case, and that the United States is troubled by the suspension of General Un Monday by Cambodia's police commissioner:

"We're very deeply concerned to see that the head of that department has been suspended," he said. "Obviously any punitive measures against her would call into question Cambodia's commitment to fight human trafficking. And we very much support the work of the Anti-Trafficking Department. We believe that General Un should be commended for the courageous efforts to investigate this brothel, and other brothels."

Mr. Boucher said Cambodian authorities "should do the right thing" and support anti-trafficking activities, not denigrate them.

The French-based group that runs the women's shelter, called in English, "Acting for Women In Distressing Situations," had been working with the Cambodian anti-trafficking police in the weeks leading up to the December 7th raid on the brothel.

The group, which receives some U.S. government funding, closed the shelter after the abduction, but says threats of violence will not stop them in their mission. It has alleged collusion in the kidnap case between organized crime and local officials.

Cambodian authorities say they will investigate the matter.

The United States says human trafficking is a major problem in Cambodia, and that the performance of the Phnom Penh government in dealing with it has been uneven.