Blaze camp district cop shunted

Refugees claim chopper dropped 'burning object'

MAE HONG SON - The Khun Yuam district police chief was hit with a lightning transfer order Monday for alleged negligence in handling Friday's deadly inferno at the Mae Surin refugee camp which resulted in almost 40 deaths.

Karen refugees and soldiers on Monday buried refugees killed in the fire that claimed 37 lives and destroyed hundreds of houses at the Mae Surin refugee camp in Mae Hong Son province last Friday. (Photo by Thiti Wannamontha)

In the order signed by Mae Hong Son police chief Sompong Chingduang, effective Monday, Pol Col Nitinart Wittayawuthikul has been moved to Mae Hong Son provincial police office for 30 days, pending an investigation.

Pol Maj Gen Sompong said Pol Col Nitinart had failed to perform his duty when the blaze broke out at the refugee camp on Friday afternoon. He would also be excluded from the fire investigation team.

Pol Col Nitinart, however, insisted he had rushed to the scene immediately after learning of the incident.

"I was there [at Mae Surin camp]. I was among the first officers who arrived at the camp to conduct the search and rescue operation," Pol Col Nitinart told the Bangkok Post.

The police officer said he was not informed in advance of his transfer and there was no clear explanation about why he had been moved out of the area.

He said he had made some progress in questioning witnesses about the cause of the blaze.

Pol Maj Gen Sompong said a police investigation committee had been set up to investigate the camp fire. The cause could not be concluded at this stage.

Investigators were still questioning witnesses and affected refugees.

He said police would interview as many refugees as they could.

"We will try to finish the investigation as soon as possible," he said.

He refused to confirm an earlier account by some witnesses that the fire started at a house in Zone 1 of the refugee camp. (Story continues after details on aid donations)

While Deputy Interior Minister Pracha Prasopdee insisted Monday the camp blaze was an accident, accounts given by refugees at the camp suggested it might have been man-made.

A police source who questioned Mae Surin camp refugees in the aftermath of the inferno said many witnesses told the officers they saw a helicopter flying above the camp minutes before the fire broke out. They also said they saw a burning object dropped from the helicopter on the roof of a house in Zone 1.

A source from the police forensics team Monday said traces of phosphorus had been found in the grounds of the house where the blaze was believed to have started.

Soil samples from the house would be sent to a Bangkok laboratory for further examination, the source said.

Sunai Phasuk, the Human Rights Watch representative in Thailand, urged the government to quickly and clearly conclude the probe to end all the speculation as the tragedy and the high death toll were being closely watched by human rights organisations and had become a concern among activists.

"The government cannot sit on this issue and let it go with the hope that the public will soon forget about it," he said.

"The government has to come up with an answer."

Meanwhile, the bodies of 36 fire victims at Mae Surin refugee camp were buried Monday in a simple Christian ceremony.

The official death toll is 37. The last victim, a male refugee, succumbed to his injuries at Nakorn Ping Hospital in Chiang Mai on Sunday. His body has yet to be returned to the camp for religious ceremonies.

Sa Mu, 29, who lost his 20-year-old brother and 15-year-old nephew in the blaze, said the fire began in Zone 1 while he was at home in Zone 4.

He ran out to help others in Zone 4 put out the fire.

"In only about 15 minutes, the fire spread quickly to my house. So I had to rush back home," he said, adding that he shouted for his family members to escape before running to a stream next to the camp.

But his brother and nephew could not make it out to the stream.

Joa Pa Hu, 26, the owner of the house where the fire was believed to have started, told police he was not at home when the blaze began.

"I left my two-year-old son sleeping at the house and went out to eat with my mother at another house," he said. "No one was at the house except my son."

He insisted he did not leave a cooking fire burning when he went out.

Toe La Si, 32, said many people heard the sound of a helicopter's rotors and saw sparks and smoke trails falling from the sky.

"It was like someone setting fire to different corners of the camp. It spread quickly from section 1 to 4," she said.

Khun Yuam district chief Charnchai Srisathien Monday said identification of the victims had been finalised. Of the 37 killed, 21 were male and 16 female.

Related search: thailand, mae hong son, refugee camp, cause, killed 37, fire, blaze, witnesses, helicopter, sparks, phosphorus, human rights

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Writer: Paritta Wangkiat and Wassayos Ngamkham