updated 12/10/2004 9:06:57 PM ET 2004-12-11T02:06:57

The top U.S. diplomat in charge of combating trafficking in people demanded Friday that Cambodia free 91 women and children abducted from a shelter a day after police had rescued them from a brothel.

The victims were rescued Tuesday from a hotel in Phnom Penh that is notorious for the sex trafficking of children. But a day later the same traffickers seized them in an armed attack on a shelter operated by a U.S.-backed nongovernmental organization, the State Department said.

“It’s outrageous and it’s now 60 hours since these traffickers were released and went in and captured 91 women and children, and as far as I know nothing has happened,” Ambassador John Miller said in an interview.

“What the government of Cambodia has to do is arrest the traffickers, free the victims and stand behind the police chief who made the raid,” said Miller, director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Brothel operators released
Cambodia’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, headed by Gen. Un Sokunthea, had rescued the women and children and arrested operators of the brothel hotel on Dec. 7, the State Department said in a statement.

The statement said eight of the brothel operators were reportedly released a day later and went back armed and seized the victims from a shelter run by the NGO Agir pour les Femmes En Situation Prcaire — Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP). The group receives U.S. funding.

Asked if Washington suspected official complicity or collusion in the abduction, Miller said he was not certain.

“We don’t know all the details, but we know the victims are still being held, we know the traffickers are still free, and we hear that the head of the special anti-trafficking unit is the one that is being reprimanded,” he said.

Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were reports from Phnom Penh of an “internal police rivalry” over trafficking.

Cambodia emerged in the early 1990s from decades of war and the death of an estimated 1.7 million people under Pol Pot’s 1975-79 “Killing Fields” regime.

But the country remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Cambodia and neighboring Southeast Asian states such as Myanmar and Thailand are considered sources and transit routes for women and children trafficked for sex.

Miller said the incident was a disappointing setback because Cambodia had made some headway in fighting trafficking in people in recent years.

“These 91 women and children — God knows what’s happened to them in the last 60 hours,” he said.

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