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Cambodian Police Break Up Protest Over New Road Toll

Riot police have clashed with taxi drivers on a busy road in Cambodia, crushing a peaceful protest over a new road toll. The drivers say the fee could ruin them.

At dawn Tuesday, close to 200 taxi and minibus drivers in Cambodia's Kandal Province gathered along a thoroughfare stretching from the capital, Phnom Penh, to the seaside city of Sihanoukville. The men waved placards and chanted through loudspeakers, calling for an end to a toll imposed Monday by the road's operator, A.Z. Investment Company.

Three hours later, riot police attacked the crowd, striking protesters with the electric batons. One man fell to the ground with blood pouring from his head. About a dozen protesters received minor injuries.

Kandal Province Police Chief Ek Krek says he ordered the crackdown because the protest was illegal and demonstrators were blocking traffic.

Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament, called the action a violation of the constitutional right to assembly. He also expressed concern with the tolls being charged drivers.

"When the freedom of expression, when the road that, the only road leading to the sea port of Cambodia will not be free for people to travel on, this is absolutely unacceptable," said Son Chhay.

The protesters say the lives of taxi drivers are becoming difficult because of the high price of gasoline, and the road toll is an added injustice.

A 12-seat minibus must pay about a $1.50 for a one-way trip along National Road Four, one of the best stretches of highway in Cambodia. Passenger cars pay about 75 cents.

Taxi drivers can earn around $100 per month, much of which goes to vehicle maintenance. Drivers say that for those using the road two or three times a day, the tax is too great a burden.

A.Z. Investment has a contract with the government to maintain the road, which allows the company to collect tolls. The company is owned by Ung Bun Hauv, a member of parliament from the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

The company says the toll is needed to pay for re-surfacing the road.

Police detained two men accused of organizing the demonstration. Drivers, however, vowed to continue their protest until a resolution is found.