An officer was killed and three others injured in the crossfire as police in the northern mountainous province of Son La seized more than 35 kilograms of heroin in a tense gun fight with traffickers early Saturday.
More than 60 officers were deployed Friday night, acting on tip-offs that two groups of 25 traffickers were about to cross Laos border into the Vietnamese province and armed with 22 assault rifles, carbines and short guns.
The nationalities of the traffickers were not revealed but the police said foreigners were involved.
The officers encircled the groups at around 4 a.m on Friday. They fired nearly 20 flares into the sky to gain a sight of the territory and gradually narrowed the circle, before calling on the gang to surrender by a speaker.
But the gang immediately fired guns to the direction of the speaker while fleeing wildly.
The police then started to fire their guns, tear gas and explosives.
One-hour non-stop shooting killed First Lieutenant Luong Phat Chiem, 32, from the mobile and protection division.
A bullet was shot at a rock and thrown into his eyes. He died on the way to hospital.
Son La police have organized an official funeral to pay tribute to him. The Ministry of Public Security upgraded his rank to captain posthumously.
Three injured officers include drug investigator Le Manh Ha, Mai Hoang, deputy chief of Van Ho District police force, and another whose identity is not available yet.
The fight ended with five of the traffickers arrested as they were too injured to run. They were rushed to hospital but two died on the way due to hemorrhage.
Police have seized six backpacks of 35.64 kilograms of heroin, besides two assault rifles, two carbines, one short gun and full rifle magazines of around 70 bullets.
A police source said the raid seemed like a losing fight as they had to make sure they only injured the traffickers to stop them from fighting, while the latter kept firing series of bullets regardless of consequences.
They cleared an entire rifle magazine against six police dogs, killing one.
Son La Police were prepared for the raid after noticing groups of armed smugglers crossing the border.
Colonel Phung Tien Trien, deputy director of the provincial police department, said the raid was the second in a special mission set up last June against criminals crossing Laos border.
Vietnam’s Penal Code demands that those convicted of smuggling more than 600 grams of heroin or more than 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine face the death penalty, making the country one of the toughest in the world in punishing drug crimes.
The production or sale of 100 grams of heroin or 300 grams of other illegal narcotics is also punishable by death.
But that hasn’t stopped drug trafficking between Laos and Vietnam from becoming rampant, with scores of other dealers and smugglers arrested and convicted every year.
The business has only become more violent of late.
Border guards in the north-central province of Nghe An last weekend had to shoot out tires to stop four traffickers from bringing 1.65 kilos of heroin and marijuana from Laos. The police had to spend hours searching after they fled the car to run into the jungle, and only found three so far.
Late last month, two Lao suspects drew knives against Nghe An border guards to protect their 3.7 kilograms of heroin, only to be overpowered.
Police in the north-central Quang Tri Province in the same month also had to deal with gun shots from two smugglers as they fled, leaving behind a van and 20,000 ecstasy tablets.