Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Military Officials Are Investigating Munitions Warehouse Blast That Killed 20 Soldiers, Wounded Several Others

Officials and families held a funeral for the 20 soldiers killed in an explosion at Region 3 military base of Kampong Speu province’s Chbar Mon city on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)
Officials and families held a funeral for the 20 soldiers killed in an explosion at Region 3 military base of Kampong Speu province’s Chbar Mon city on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)

Borei Kamakor resident Hin Sam Oeun, 51, said her home was completely destroyed in Saturday afternoon’s explosion at the Military Region 3 base in Kampong Speu’s Chbar Mon city. She said the damage will probably cost her $30,000 or $40,000 to replace. 

But this is not what kept her up Saturday night. Every time she closed her eyes, she said she saw the victims of the explosion, which killed 20 military officials and injured an unannounced number of others. 

“Whenever I talk about this I cry,” she said. “I lost my home and everything fell down in my house. I can’t call it home. I hope Samdech will provide compensation.”

Officials and families held a funeral for the 20 soldiers killed in an explosion at Region 3 military base of Kampong Speu province’s Chbar Mon city on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)

The Military Region 3 base held funeral ceremonies throughout Sunday as officials attempted to pick up debris after a major explosion killed 20 soldiers and shook Chbar Mon city’s Chbar Mon commune on Saturday at about 2:25 p.m. Families of the soldiers and government officials alike came to share condolences for the dead officials, but the government has yet to reveal the cause of the explosion or the extent of the cleanup necessary. 

Thong Solimo, spokesperson of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ general command headquarters, told CamboJA News that “leaders are meeting to find out the reason”, and referred instead to an RCAF report that confirmed 20 soldiers were killed, including 15 soldiers from Koh Kong province and 5 soldiers from the Region 3 base.

The report added that four buildings – three for storage and one facility for soldiers’ accommodations – were destroyed while five military trucks fully loaded with weapons from Koh Kong were damaged, as well as 25 villagers’ houses, it said.

Cambodia Mine Action Center (CMAC) general director Heng Ratana said his officials have inspected the site but the investigation is underway, so he cannot reveal further information.

“[We] are working and I don’t have information” about the cause of the explosion, he said. “We are still discussing so it can’t be publicly disseminated yet.”

CMAC teams searched the site of a fatal explosion site in Military Regional 3 at Kampong Speu province on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

The explosion left at least  25 houses in Borei Kamakor village, directly next to the munitions warehouse, in shambles. Walls were cracked, glass shattered, and roofs were dislodged from above residents’ heads. Some houses caught fire due to the power of the explosion, residents said.

Borei Kamakor residents said they were shocked, adding they had never before experienced any incidents like this while living next to an RCAF facility.

As residents salvaged their possessions from broken houses, CMAC officers and a team of doctors extracted debris and pieces of the bodies of those who died in the explosion.

According to the villagers, they did not know that there was a truck transporting ammunition to a munitions depot around the time of the explosion, and they claimed that this was the first time such a tragedy occurred.

The explosion partially collapsed some civilian houses and damaged others in Kampong Speu province on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Sam Navy, 57, who lives 30 meters from the munitions depot, told CamboJA that when the bomb exploded, she ran to find her granddaughter and children, who were sleeping in the house, fearing for their safety. The explosion was at about 2pm when the weather was so hot, she recalled.

“I was too scared and ran to my grandchildren and children, I fell down and I shouted to them and ran from my house to another villager’s house. My daughter is very lucky because if she had stayed in front of the house, she wouldn’t have survived,” said Navy.

Navy spent Sunday moving her possessions into a neighbor’s yard for storage, as her family couldn’t stay in their home after the damage.  

The explosion partially collapsed some civilian houses and damaged others in Kampong Speu province on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Prime Minister Hun Manet announced in a Facebook post that the killed soldiers’ families would receive $20,000 in support, but as of Sunday, Navy did not know whether she will receive compensation for the loss of her home. She said she is still waiting for further information and she is shocked by this tragedy.

“There are no survivors and we do not know why it exploded, because everyone in the scene is dead,” she said. “This incident is very cruel, and I have never met [something like this] before.

Another resident, Keo Sareth, 62, said that the bodies of the soldiers were obliterated. He added that the munitions depot still has unexploded ordnance (UXO) that experts need to remove.

“The soldiers told me that there were more bullets inside the building and the reason for the explosion may be because of technical problems and only an expert can explain it,” said Sareth.

The last goodbye

In lieu of holding their loved ones, families of the deceased soldiers embraced coffins covered by Cambodian flags at a memorial on Sunday. 

One woman grasped her adult son, who walked into the memorial tent carrying a candle and incense, both family members crying. As they hobbled together, she screamed that her husband promised he would return that night after one day at work. 

“I came to take you back to our house,” she said through sobs. “You told me that you come to work only for a day and would go home, but now why [did this happen]!”

Most of the soldier’s families had traveled from Koh Kong province, as 15 of the 20 deceased soldiers were visiting to bring ammunition to Kampong Speu from the coastal province.

In Somaly told CamboJA News that she had traveled from Takeo province to reclaim her deceased brother-in-law’s body, but they had taken soil from the explosion site instead because his body couldn’t be found. 

Those who were praying could be heard asking for a final chance at goodbye: “Let your soul go back to our house and be born again with a long life….”

Somaly said she could not share much information at that time and said they would wait until the end of the funeral to find a solution for the victim’s family.

Family members of dead military officials cry during the funeral at Region 3 military base in Kampong Speu province on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)

Prime Minister Manet posted a message on his Facebook, sharing his condolences to the victims’ families. In addition to the $20,000 to support families of the 20 deceased, those who were injured would receive 20 million riels (almost $5,000) in compensation.

“On behalf of the Royal Government and on my own behalf, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the dead soldier’s families and those wounded of this tragic incident,” read his post.

Kampong Speu provincial governor Vei Samnang could not be reached for comment on Sunday, though he had said Saturday that he would not comment because the incident was a national security issue. Meanwhile provincial police chief Sam Samoun, declined to comment and referred questions to the army department.

Government spokesperson Pen Bona, referred questions to the National Defense spokesperson Chhum Sucheat, while Sucheat and Royal Cambodian Army spokesperson Mao Phalla both could not be reached for comment.

RCAF’s deputy commander and chief of joint staff Ith Sarath declined to comment, saying he was busy in a meeting.

A Villager observes the damage of an explosion in Military Regional 3 zone which killed 20 military officials and injured others, while damaging more than 20 houses in Kampong Speu province, on April 28, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)