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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Battambang under threat by KR push

Battambang under threat by KR push

BATTAMBANG - Royal Government troops were this week fighting to stave off a

large-scale offensive by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who are even threatening to

take second city Battambang.

The fighting, the heaviest since 1989 when

Vietnamese forces withdrew, caused a trail of human misery. An estimated 40,000

forced to flee their homes along Route 10 between Battambang and the guerrillas

base at Pailin.

Ominously for Cambodia's efforts to rehabilitate itself

after years of warfare, most foreign aid workers and expatriates left Battambang

in two large convoys on May 2 and 3.

The mood in Battambang itself was

tense as the Post went to press, with the frontline some 23 km to the west of

the town.

"Until today I thought the Khmer Rouge would never try to take

Battambang and now I think they just might do it," said a close observer of the

military situation in Battambang the night of May 2 as a shell boomed from the

government defensive line less than 10 km away.

Another analyst noted:

"The Khmer Rouge don't have a lot of troops," noted another analyst, "but they

certainly know how to use them effectively."

The offensive is another

grave blow to the Royal Government. It has already been severely embarrassed by

the kidnapping of four foreign nationals and two major military debacles, in

which the KR bases of Anlong Veng and Pailin were captured amid huge fanfare,

only to be quickly lost again.

The new gains by the KR also put them in

the driving seat should they finally opt to talk peace (see accompanying story).

"Now that the Khmer Rouge are balking at peace talks it seems they are

determined to destabilize the coalition government and prevent foreign

investment in the country," said another observer.

"It's easy for the

Khmer Rouge to make guerrilla attacks, impossible for the government to

anticipate all their moves."

 

Seng Vanna, the one-armed and one-eyed commander of the Military Region 5

which covers Battambang said 2,000 reinforcements had arrived on May 2 from

Region 4, Siem Reap province. But he added that the government side was

dangerously short on ammunition and was relying on one warehouse in the town for

supplies.

Using classic guerrilla tactics the KR have advanced up Route

10 and launched sporadic attacks in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey. No casualty

figures had been released by the government at press time.

Route 5

between Sisophon and Poipet has become a no-go area to all traffic except

foreign NGO vehicles whose drivers are willing to brave a potential Khmer Rouge

attack in the five to six km stretch between Poipet and Nimit.

"Over 80

percent of the people of Poipet have left," said General Hun Sothera, commanding

the troops stationed at nearby Nimit who are charged with defending the border

market town. As of May 3 it was still in government hands, several independent

sources said.

Bantey Meanchey provincial governor Doung Kaem estimated

that between 1-2,000 KR have been taking part in the attacks in Bantey Meanchey.

Some government soldiers spoke of the KR deploying special squads of

mercenary troops, distinguished by their inability to speak Khmer and their

hooped earrings. Some said they were hilltribesmen, others said they were from

Burma or Thailand, all thought they were fighting while high on drugs.

In

Battambang the effects of the offensive quickly became felt with the imposition

of a curfew outside the hours of 8 am and 5pm and food prices rising by 20

percent. Some food products from Thailand doubled in price.

During

April, the Khmer Rouge regained their Phum Chat base on the Thai border and

moved troops into several other villages within 30 km of Thmar Pouk.

Two

convoys composed of over 70 NGO and UN vehicles and nearly 200 aid staff left

the provincial capitol for Phnom Penh on Monday and Tuesday as fighting reached

out to encompass Snoeg and the borders of Phum Krapov. Local residents fear the

city will be dogged by fighting for months to come.

"Most of us are

development agencies, not relief," said a member of one convoy, which left

Tuesday as unconfirmed reports circulated in the town that a government

counterattack on the Khmer Rouge's southern flank seemed to have stemmed the

advance.

"We can't go out to the villages to work because of security

concerns. Most of us don't think anything will happen in Battambang. But just in

case, it's better to be safe." Many of those who left believed they would be

able to return within a week, but others were not so optimistic.

British

American and Australian embassies have appointed local representatives to

coordinate security for each country's nationals, attempting to make definitive

lists of names and location in case of evacuation.

The Australian Embassy

was advising nationals not to travel to Battambang or even Siem Reap.

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