A Burmese drug runner and five members of his gang have pleaded guilty in a Chinese court to murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River, state media said, in a case that has marked China's growing law enforcement role beyond its borders.
Naw Kham was extradited to China by Laos officials in May, the chief suspect in the killings of Chinese boat crews last year in the "Golden Triangle" region known for drug smuggling where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet.
It was one of the deadliest assaults on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times and caused Beijing to send gunboat patrols to the region downstream from its borders.
Naw Kham, in his 40s, pleaded guilty at the Intermediate People's Court of Kunming in southwest China during a two-day trial in which he "expressed his penitence to the victims and their families", the official Xinhua news agency said late on Friday.
"Prosecutors showed irrefutable and sufficient evidence of the criminal offences, including the six defendants' confessions, witness testimonies, DNA test results, and autopsy reports."
Naw Kham denied plotting the attack on Thursday, but the five other defendants, all foreign nationals, testified that he was the gang's leader, the news agency said.
The six suspects faced charges of intentional homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking. The court has yet to announce a date for the sentencing.
Xinhua said Naw Kham was "hoping for leniency" and that the other defendants were "begging for lighter punishment" in pleading guilty.
The 13 Chinese sailors aboard two cargo ships were killed after being hijacked on a lawless stretch of the Mekong River last October.
A Reuters investigation in January showed that some, if not all, of the sailors were still alive when their boats crossed into Thailand, and that they were executed and tossed overboard inside Thai territory.
The Mekong snakes from China into Southeast Asia, where it forms the border between Myanmar and Laos, and then Thailand and Laos. In 2001, the four countries signed an agreement to regularise shipping on the river.
All Chinese shipping on the Mekong was suspended after the murders, which sparked outrage in China. The incident was followed by Chinese patrols and strengthened security cooperation among the four countries.
The patrols have been seen as an expansion of Beijing's growing role in regional security, extending its law enforcement down the highly strategic waterway and into Southeast Asia.