By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia has arrested 27 Chinese and Taiwanese nationals on suspicion of operating a telecoms extortion ring to defraud victims in China, officials said on Tuesday.
Cambodia has deported more than 200 Chinese nationals since November in a crackdown on internet and telecoms scams. Beijing is battling a fast growing industry in telecoms fraud that has cost billions of dollars in financial losses and driven some victims to suicide.
Chinese and Cambodian authorities have coordinated to uncover scams orchestrated from Cambodia.
Cambodian police said people in Cambodia would call up people in China asking for money to free relatives allegedly held captive or for other fictitious reasons.
"We are questioning them and if we find them guilty of the crimes, we will deport them," Uk Heisela, chief of investigations at Cambodia's immigration department, told Reuters on Tuesday after the latest arrests.
"Their alleged crimes were all the same, they extorted money via phone from victims in China."
The 15 Chinese and 12 Taiwanese men and women were arrested in a raid at their villa in the capital Phnom Penh on Monday, Heisela said.
Since 2011, Taiwan and China have cooperated in investigating telecoms fraud in Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines and other countries, arresting more than 7,700 suspects, including 4,600 from Taiwan, according to China's official news agency, Xinhua.
"This is happening all over the world," said Khun Sambor, Cambodia's deputy director of immigration. "Cambodia is just a small percentage of it." Sambor said he was unaware why Cambodia had become a base for some of those involved.
Chinese authorities say criminal gangs based in diplomatic rival Taiwan are behind many of the scams and according to Xinhua, on average more than 10 billion yuan (1 billion pounds) is swindled out of the mainland to Taiwan by telephone scammers every year.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Tuesday that he did not know the details of the case.
Kenya deported 45 Taiwan suspects in another telecoms fraud case to China in April, angering Taipei who accused China of kidnapping its citizens.
Cambodia needed to be transparent about the process and those arrested allowed to contest deportation to China in a fair and impartial hearing, said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia
"No matter how much pressure Phnom Penh faces from Beijing, Cambodia must not cut corners on the due process rights of this group," Robertson said.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Simon Webb and Nick Macfie)