BEIJING (Reuters) - Laos on Thursday handed over the suspected leader of a drug gang accused of killing 13 members of Chinese boat crews on a lawless stretch of the Mekong River, an incident that caused Beijing to send gunboat patrols to the region downstream from its borders.
Naw Kham, a Burmese man in his 40s notorious for his role in suspected drug smuggling in the "Golden Triangle" region where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, was handed over to China, state-run news agency Xinhua said.
He was found in a four-nation joint investigation to have been involved in organizing the killings of the Chinese crew members of two boats last October, the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times. Nine members of a Thai military taskforce are also implicated in the murders.
"There is evidence to show that Naw Kham and core members in his gang colluded with lawless Thai soldiers and carried out the murders on the Mekong River," Liu Yuejin, leader of an investigation team under China's Ministry of Public Security, was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
A Reuters investigation in January showed that some, if not all, of the sailors were still alive when their boats crossed into Thailand, and that they were executed and tossed overboard inside Thai territory.
Initially, the prime suspect was Naw Kham, a heavily armed Mekong pirate who terrorized shipping in Myanmar. But the investigation later also turned to nine members of an elite anti-narcotics taskforce of the Thai military.
"At the moment, the nine soldiers who were accused of being involved in the murders are under investigation by the police," said Thai Defence Ministry spokesman Tanatip Sawangsaeng.
"The Thai military does not have a policy of helping wrongdoers and we are ready for other countries to investigate and provide them with full information to help their investigation."
China's state broadcaster CCTV said Naw Kham's group first hijacked the Chinese boats in Myanmar, bound the crew members and transferred the drugs. After they reached Thailand, they killed the crew and threw their bodies into the river.
"It's premeditated ... He was doing trans-national crime, and the crime scenes involved two countries," Xian Yanming, deputy leader of the investigation team was cited by CCTV as saying.
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.
All Chinese shipping on the Mekong was suspended after the October murders, which sparked popular outrage in China.
The incident was followed by strengthened security cooperation among the four countries, and armed patrols by China, though attacks have persisted.
The patrols, ostensibly conducted with Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, have been seen as an expansion of Beijing's growing role in regional security, extending its law enforcement down the highly strategic waterway and into Southeast Asia.
(Reporting by Sally Huang and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok; Editing by Jason Szep and Ed Lane)