UPDATE 1-Illegal log exports from Cambodia surge - report

(Adds comment from European Union)

PHNOM PENH, May 8 (Reuters) - Illegal exports of timber from Cambodia to Vietnam surged in recent months despite an export ban aimed at countering rapid deforestation in one Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, an environmentalist group said in a report on Monday.

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency estimated that over 300,000 cubic metres of timber had been smuggled out of Cambodia since November.

It accused Vietnamese officials of taking bribes from smugglers to allow the timber to appear legitimate.

“This is the single largest log-smuggling operation that we have seen for years,” Senior Forests Campaigner Jago Wadley said.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry gave no immediate response to a request for comment on the accusations. Vietnam enforces strict controls on logging in its forests.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said some of the timber mentioned in the report might have received permission for export to Vietnam but declined to comment further.

Cambodia has a long-standing ban on log exports, both to preserve forests and protect rarer trees that provide valuable woods, like Siamese rosewood.

Early last year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a bigger effort to curb illegal logging and said he had ordered police to fire on loggers from the air if need be.

At the height of the logging operation, between December and January 2017, about 100 log carriers were crossing into Vietnam every day, the EIA said in the report based on an undercover investigation.

The environmental campaign group said the timber smuggling should put in question a deal between Vietnam and the European Union to ensure that any timber exports to EU countries from Vietnam are legal.

“We would encourage the authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam to urgently investigate the reported illegal activities and take firm action against individuals and companies found to be involved in illegal logging,” George Edgar, the head of the EU delegation, said in an email to Reuters. (Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)