Newin Chidchob said that only 7,728 high-grade teak logs were left at the storage sites, and that 1,532 unregistered teak logs had been found mixed in with the confiscated logs.The deputy agriculture minister insists that 5,487 teak logs impounded after the 1997 Salween logging scandal have disappeared from a pile of 13,215 logs held in custody at Tak provincial forestry office.
Those unregistered logs were probably freshly-cut teak logs which were added to storage sites to replace the disappearing logs, the minister said.
The Forestry Department and Forestry Industry Organisation must be held responsible for the disappearance of the logs and illegal logging in Salween national park and wildlife sanctuary because they were the only agencies overseeing the impounded timber since 1997, said Mr Newin.
A new panel chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Suvit Khunkitti would investigate. It had already managed to haul another 1,115 high-grade illegally-felled teak logs, which lay scattered in Salween national park, to a safe site in Bangkok's suburbs.
However, Mr Newin said, the panel decided to leave 84 teak logs as they were in Salween wildlife sanctuary as suggested earlier by Natural Resources and Environment permanent-secretary Plodprasop Suraswadi.
Mr Newin admitted that the number of confiscated logs and missing logs was confusing.
Reports submitted by the Forestry Department, FIO, and the police all differed. ``This means we have no idea what has happened to the 13,215 logs in the past five years,'' said Mr Newin.
Chanatt Laohawattana, FIO managing-director, maintained none of the confiscated teak-timber had disappeared.
``It's just a matter of getting numbers confused. The logs are kept safely at storage sites in Salween national park, wildlife sanctuary and forest reserve in Mae Hong Son and Tak province,''said Mr Chanatt.
Paitoon Kanchanapinpong, acting chief of Mae Hong Son provincial forestry office, also argued that Mr Newin's claim of 5,000 missing logs was groundless.
A total of 33,884 logs were seized from loggers in Salween national park and wildlife sanctuary from 1997 to 2002. The Forestry Department sold 15,485 logs to the Forestry Industry Organisation in 1997.
Another 13,215 logs were kept safely in provincial forestry office storage sites, said Mr Paitoon.
Local conservationists in Tak province, however, alleged forestry officials and FIO staff and Third Army officers had smuggled high-grade teak impounded after the 1997 Salween logging scandal.
Villagers living around Salween forest had seen FIO and forestry officers hauling teak logs out of the forest several times in the last five years, said a source working for Salween forest conservation group, based in Tak province.
Those logs should not have been moved because the investigation into Salween illegal logging cases was still underway, he said.
The wood seized from loggers were supposed to be kept in the forest until the case was closed.
``We also suspect that teak hauled out by those officials is freshly-cut teak, not the logs cut down during the logging scandal,'' a source said.
Panithi Tangpathi, chairman of Tak Chamber of Commerce, also a member of a local forest conservation group, expressed scepticism over the government's plan to haul the logs.
Allegations that more than 5,000 logs had disappeared and that illegal logging was still rampant in Salween forest might represent sly government attempts to sell the country's last lot of perfect teak timber, he said.
The value of the logs were enormous. The teak timber cost more than 20,000 baht per cubic metre, said Mr Panithi.