(Adds Chinese ministry comment, freeze on Chinese ships)
BEIJING, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Thirteen Chinese nationals were killed in an attack on the Mekong River near the Thai-Myanmar border, a Thai official said according to Chinese media, in an assault that prompted Beijing to urge stronger protection in the area used by drug runners.
The victims were crew members on two cargo ships attacked on Oct. 5 in the “Golden Triangle”, where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, a region notorious for drug smuggling, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn) late on Sunday.
Earlier reports said 11 or 12 sailors were confirmed as dead. But the Xinhua news agency cited a Thai official who said all 13 crew members of the two boats died.
The bodies were retrieved near Chiang Saen, a river port in north Thailand, with hands bound and eyes covered with adhesive tape, the China Daily reported. They had been shot.
China’s growing presence in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world has prompted attacks, kidnappings and hijackings, and the issue has become a sensitive one for Chinese officials, who do not want to appear weak in protecting nationals.
Chinese officials “will continue to pay close attention to developments and we urge the countries concerned to quickly establish the truth about the incident, capture the criminals, and protect the safety of the Mekong River”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a daily news briefing.
Crew on another boat who saw the attack said eight or so armed men stormed the ships, the China News Service reported.
The attackers appeared to be smugglers seeking to use the seized ships to traffic drugs, said the report, citing Thai media. The owner of one of the boats attacked said robberies were common on the river, said the China Daily.
Thai river police recovered the two boats after a gunfight with the men onboard and found five sacks holding a total of about 900,000 pills of methamphetamine, or “speed”, an illegal stimulant, said the China Daily, citing Thai news reports.
The Mekong snakes from China into Southeast Asia, where it forms the border between Myanmar and Laos, and then Thailand and Laos. In 2001, the four countries signed an agreement to regularize shipping on the river.
The 4,900-km (3,050 mile) river also flows through Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the sea.
China has ordered Chinese passenger and cargo vessels to suspend trips along the Mekong, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Robert Birsel