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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A conspiracy of dupes and amateurs?

A conspiracy of dupes and amateurs?

Were the gun battles of November 24 a sincere but fruitless attempt by rebels to

topple the Cambodian Government? Or a calculated piece of political theater

designed to facilitate a Government crackdown on dissidents? The Post puts

together the pieces and says, 'You decide'.

Military police escort suspected 'CFF' insurgents to prison for interrogation

on November 24

By Stephen O'Connell and

Lon Nara

ACCOUNTS of the November 24 gun battles along Pochentong

Boulevard and at the E70 military barracks in Dangkau District suggest the

attack by the so-called Cambodia Freedom Fighters (CFF) was an amateurish effort

launched by an untrained, ill-equipped force duped into believing they were

fighting Vietnamese.

 

Setting the stage

Witnesses told the Post that eight "CFF"

gunmen moved into a small house beside the tracks several hundred meters to the

west of Phnom Penh railway station three days before the fighting. The house is

owned by a man named Ponleu, a seller of exotic wood products.

Ponleu's

brother-in-law, Oum Channy - Deputy Security Chief of the railway station -

rented the house on behalf of Ponleu to a man five days before the gun battle.

A relative of Channy's told the Post the new tenant claimed to be a

construction labor contractor and that he had learned that the house was

available to rent from a friend that worked at the Ministry of National

Defense.

Two days later about eight men moved into the house and told

neighbors that they had come from the provinces to work as construction laborers

A moto driver, Touch, 29, said that in the days before the attack he

watched the coming and goings of these men. "I felt uneasy about them because

they were newcomers," he said.

Neighbors told the Post the men looked

unkempt and dirty, but believed their story that they had come to Phnom Penh to

work as construction laborers.

The 'recruitment'

On the evening of November 23, the eight men

were observed singing songs at a karaoke bar near their house.

A wounded survivor of the November 24 gun battle

"I and a

friend were inside the karaoke bar," 16-year-old Suor Rithy recalled. "It was

about 8:00pm when seven or eight of the men came in. Each of them sang only one

song, then the ones who finished singing left the shop and passed the microphone

to the next till only one was left. They sang only wedding and traditional

songs."

At about 1:00am on November 24 Touch, the moto driver, drove by

the strangers' house and saw armed men lurking outside.

"I parked my

motorbike and asked them if there was a problem," said Touch. "They said they

were going to arrest thieves. Three minutes later, I saw "Brother" [You] Seda [a

bodyguard of Co-Minister of the Interior You Hockry] riding his motorbike toward

the house. Then I heard the crash of his motorbike," said Touch.

Seda,

36, told the Post that he had left work at about midnight on November 23 and was

returning to his nearby home after visiting a friend.

"I arrived at about

1:15am. Fifty meters away from my house I saw about 15 gunmen, with AK-47s and

B-40 launchers, standing in the path. I asked them what was happening. One of

them ordered me to hand over my gun and handcuffs. He then kicked my motorbike

down.

"I was ordered to kneel. One of them cocked his weapon. Someone

said 'Tie him up then shoot and bury him,' but another said 'Let's take him to

the front.' They told me that they were Khmer Serei. When I heard this, I felt

that my life would come to an end and I screamed."

Seda's wife heard his

scream and tried to follow the gunmen as they left for the station, but they

threatened to shoot her.

Touch said four young men who came to

investigate the source of the ruckus were immediately pressed into service as

munitions bearers. "The gunmen ordered them to join them. They were given B-40

rockets and told 'We go to fight Yuon'."

Kim Nen, 22, was one of the four

unfortunate youths. "I ran to the scene, and suddenly I was held at gunpoint.

They ordered me to carry two B40 rockets and go forward to fight the Yuon. They

said we should go to our deaths together."

Nen watched as the armed men

forced 20 people to accompany them on their journey toward the railway station

before escaping behind a cement warehouse.

Moments before he made his

escape, Seda saw more gunmen leap over the wall and enter the railway yard. "One

them ordered his men to take the weapons and shoot at the TV3 station. Another

said they were Khmer Serei and were going to kill Yuon".

Oun Chan, 41, a

railway guard, watched as the gunmen took over the station at about

1:20am.

"First I saw more than twenty armed men walking from west along

the tracks. I had been sleeping near the guard house at the south entrance. I

was getting up and one of them came and pointed an AK-47 at me and said not to

move."

Meas Samoeun, another security guard, woke when gunmen burst into

the room where he slept.

"They kicked one of my colleagues and punched

his head. I was very frightened. They then pointed a gun at me and demanded I go

with them and fight Yuon."

Sok Neardey, the railway station's Security

Chief, told the Post the gunmen took 14 AK-47 rifles and over 100 rounds of

ammunition from the station's weapons storeroom. He said the guards were unarmed

and could not resist the "CFF".

After they broke into the station's arms

storage locker they left yelling "Let's take our guns and go to fight Yuon,"

said Chan. Accompanying the gunmen was Chan's colleague, the Deputy Security

Chief of the station, Oum Channy.

"[Channy] walked at the front of the

group and had a walkie-talkie in his pocket," said Chan. "He carried an AK-47

balanced on his shoulder. As he passed by me, I asked 'Ny, what is happening?'

but he did not answer. His face looked blank. I believe that Ny was with the

group."

A few hours later Channy lay dead on Pochentong Boulevard with a

gunshot wound to his leg and bearing other marks that suggest he was beaten to

death.

Chan confirms Nen's account of the forced nature of the gunmen's

"recruitment", reporting that four or five cement warehouse workers were

likewise ordered at gunpoint to join them."

 

Railway station rumble

The first shooting around the train

station area occurred shortly after the group exited the railway yards from the

south gate.

"They screamed that a police truck was coming and started

cocking their rifles," Chan said. "When they opened fire on the truck I

escaped."

Chhean Soeun, a 34-year-old homeless woman, was sleeping on the

sidewalk opposite TV3 when she woke to see some 20 armed men approaching.

"They were in civilian clothes. One of them carried a B40 rocket on his

back. All of them carried AK-47s in positions ready for fighting. They screamed

'Move forward!' but then asked each other if they were in front of TV3.

"I thought that if they were real warriors, they would not yell like

that.

"Then the shooting started. They sprayed bullets at the Total

security guard. They shot at TV3. Before leaving, they threw a hand grenade at

the Total station."

A nearby resident peeked through his fence as

shooting erupted outside his house.

"I saw more than 20 armed men walking

and running. They opened fire on seven policemen [from Khan Prampi Makara police

station who were driving down Pochentong in a truck] in front of TV3. The police

fired back, but then they were shot and wounded.

"The rebels moved

towards them, and the wounded police raised their hands and begged not to be

shot.

"Then the rebels headed west down [Pochentong], yelling. They

screamed in front of the Council of Ministers for officials to come

out.

"They shot many rounds from AK-47s into the air. They acted like

unprofessional fighters."

Nhou Mao, a 45-year-old security guard,

witnessed the fighting around the Rural Development Ministry:

"I was

hiding inside the guard house. One bullet went through the guard house just

above where I was lying. I heard them talking through radios: 'Move foreword,

Move forward... Withdraw.'

"Some shouted 'the bullets are running out,

get us more.' They shot many rounds into the air before they withdrew," said

Mao.

Attack on Battalion E70

As the fighting was taking place along Pochentong, another futile attack was

launched at E70, an RCAF base in Dangkau.

A soldier based at E70, who

does not want to be named, told the Post that about 6:00pm on the evening of

November 23 a drunk man stood outside the gate of the base and shouted "Heng

Samrin and Hun Sen have had a quarrel. Your base will be destroyed

tonight."

The drunk man was arrested and questioned. Soldiers found on

his body an AK-47 magazine full of bullets.

"My commander asked all

soldiers to be alert, deploying us around the base after the spy [the drunk man]

was interrogated."

At about 1:45am soldiers at E70 watched as a group of

10 "rebels" crawled towards the base through rice fields.

"They failed

because we knew of their assault plan," said the soldier. "But before they

withdrew they launched five rockets into the base, damaging a barracks, a

motorcycle, and wounding five soldiers.

"One of [the attackers] was

killed. The clash lasted only a few minutes and then they fled across the rice

field."

The day after

The following morning police made a

house-to-house search near the railway station. Touch the moto driver watched as

police discovered blood-stains on the steps of Ponleu's house.

"A police

officer ... knocked on the door. The officer entered the house and found a

wounded man hiding under a bed. He then ran out of the house and shouted for his

men. He shot two rounds of his AK-47, ordering everyone to get out of the

house."

Touch says the men who were arrested left the house smiling -

even the wounded man whose clothes were soaked with blood. Four rockets and

seven AK-47s were found hidden by the house.

At about the same time

military police surrounded a house near E70 owned by Kon Somaly, a former member

of Prince Norodom Ranariddh's bodyguard unit.

Neighbors said the police

found several AK-47s dumped in the rice field behind Somaly's house. Like

Ponleu, Somaly was nowhere to be found. Both Ponleu's and Somaly's families said

the men had nothing to do with the "CFF."

Channy's widow can't account

for her husband's actions on the night he was killed.

But she's convinced

he was only wounded during the fighting and was later murdered by soldiers to

keep him silent.

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