PHNOM PENH - Cambodian human rights campaigners denounced a crackdown Thursday on striking garment workers by a special military unit, describing it as a "disturbing new tactic" by the authorities.
The incident comes against a backdrop of growing public protests against the kingdom's long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was handed a new five-year term in September following disputed elections.
Soldiers were seen brandishing metal pipes, knives, AK47 rifles, slingshots and batons at the scene of Thursday's protest, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO).
Clashes broke out between security forces and workers demanding higher wages near the Yak Jin factory in the Por Senchey district of Phnom Penh, it said in a statement.
The use of the special military command unit to suppress the protest "is unprecedented and signals a disturbing new tactic by authorities to quash what have been largely peaceful protests", it said.
The group said it was "gravely concerned for the safety of those still held", voicing fears that some were severely beaten.
There was no immediate comment from the military or the government about the allegations of excessive force.
Activists said about a dozen people were believed to have been arrested including five monks, while several people were injured.
"We are peaceful protesters but they used violence against us," said one of the strikers, Prak Sovannary.
"We will continue to strike until they (those detained) are released," she added.
The violence occurred when a small number of people started throwing stones at the factory and at the security forces, witnesses said.
Disputes over wages and safety conditions are common in Cambodia's multi-billion dollar garment industry which supplies brands like Gap, Nike and H&M.
The sector employs about 650,000 people and is a key source of foreign income for the impoverished country.
The workers are demanding a minimum wage of $160 per month.
Recently striking garment workers have teamed up with anti-government protesters demanding Hun Sen step down and call a new election because of alleged vote fraud.
There have been daily rallies in Phnom Penh against Hun Sen's government, with an estimated 20,000 or more opposition supporters taking to the streets on Sunday.
Hun Sen - a 61-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia's rise from the ashes of war - has ruled for 28 years, and has vowed to continue until he is 74.