Cambodian governor caught
Former Bavet governor Chhouk Bandith walks after appearing at the Court of Appeal in central Phnom Penh February 27, 2013. A provincial court had earlier dropped charges against him in December 2012, citing inadequate evidence, in a case where he is accused of wounding three protesting female garment workers when he opened fire during a protest against low wages in February 2012, local media said. Reuters/Samrang Pring

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A fugitive Cambodian governor wanted for the shooting of three garment workers was arrested on Saturday after more than two years on the run, after the country's strongman leader Hun Sen broke his silence and called for his arrest.

Chhouk Bandith shot and wounded the women in front of thousands of workers during a rowdy 2012 protest at a supplier factory for German sporting goods group Puma in Svay Rieng province.

His years of freedom - despite being convicted in absentia in 2013 and sentenced to 18 months in prison - has long angered Cambodians fed up with the antics of an often untouchable elite.

Chhouk Bandith, who previously served as governor of the town of Bavet, on the border with Vietnam, surrendered to police in the capital, Phnom Penh, city police chief General Chuon Sovann told Reuters.

"We have Chhouk Bandith and we are transferring him to Svay Rieng provincial court to further process the legal procedures," Chuon Sovann told Reuters.

Chhouk Bandith chose to surrender after Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly called for the first time on Monday that he be arrested, Chuon Sovann said.

Activists welcomed the arrest, but said the fact that his years on the lam only ended with a word from Hun Sen showed the power of the prime minister's meddling in the country's deeply corrupt law enforcement and judiciary, which is often used to stifle his opponents.

"The message Hun Sen wants to send is that his word is magical," said Moeun Tola, a labor activist with the Community Legal Education Center.

Rights groups have criticized the charge Chhouk Bandith was convicted on - unintentional injury - as too lenient and have called for fresh charges of attempted murder.

Renewed interest in the case was sparked after the high-profile arrest of real estate tycoon Sok Bun in July for the beating of a female television presenter, Ek Socheata.

Hun Sen added his voice to the chorus of condemnation over the beating, after a video of the attack went viral online.

Protests over wages and working conditions, and violent crackdowns, are common in Cambodia's garment industry. Garments are the country's biggest revenue earner, bringing in more than $5 billion annually and employing 600,000 people.

(Editing by Aubrey Belford in Bangkok, Robert Birsel)