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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Control of key town disputed

Control of key town disputed

T he Cambodian government has claimed they have captured the key Khmer Rouge

northern headquarters of Anlong Veng after more than three months of multiple

attacks and hundreds of casualties.

Defence Minister Tea Banh told

Reuters : "We captured Anlong Veng on Feb 5. Our troops control the whole area

now." He added there were "no serious casualties."

The claim of victory

at Anlong Veng was denied by Khmer Rouge spokesman Mak Ben in an interview with

the Post on Feb 8.

He said: "The government forces are not in Anlong Veng

- not one inch. Their statements are aimed at covering up their defeats and to

boost the morale of their forces."

Foreign military analysts say the

government suffered at least 200 killed during fierce fighting between Feb 2 and

7 alone. Government sources acknowledge that a number of tanks and military

vehicles were also destroyed during the offensive.

Khmer Rouge sources

claimed more than 500 government troops were killed or wounded in the first days

of February.

More than 4000 government soldiers were involved in the

three pronged attack on Anlong Veng, from the south, west and east in remote

guerrilla controlled regions of northern Siem Riep province.

Mak Ben

acknowledged that government was attacking the area with great

force.

"This is the third attack. The first attempt was last October, the

second throughout January and the third was this last week. They had three

thousand troops and many tanks involved and they have suffered many casualties.

Their objective in launching the attack is to generate a turning point in order

to destroy and eliminate the DK," he said.

The military seizure of Anlong

Veng, if confirmed, would be a significant political victory in the ongoing

jockeying for leverage between the government and the Khmer Rouge. The fighting

has temporarily replaced stalled peace negotiations designed to achieve a

political settlement to the conflict which would give some role to the Khmer

Rouge in the Royal Government.

But analysts warned that it is too early

to judge the significance of a government seizure of Anlong Veng, and point to

heavy fighting in neighboring Preah Vihear province where the Khmer Rouge are

poised to capture significant government controlled areas.

Diplomats and

Western military analysts say that it is unclear whether the government can hold

on to Anlong Veng. They also said that the Khmer Rouge are in a position to

seize other areas, neutralizing any political gains the government might make by

capturing Anlong Veng.

Government and Khmer Rouge sources say the

guerrilla group largely abandoned Anlong Veng more than a month ago, organizing

a tactical retreat in the face of what they knew would be a concerted government

effort to capture the base.

Anlong Veng was captured by the Khmer Rouge

in late 1989 and served as the northern headquarters of the guerrilla faction,

controlled by Ta Mok.

The one-legged general, the most powerful military

commander of the faction, has at least 12 Divisions under his command and is

responsible for all of northern and eastern Cambodia.

Anlong Veng had as

many as 80,000 civilians and their families living there in recent years and was

the single largest settlement of the Khmer Rouge.

Many of the residents

were families of soldiers and civilians who lived in a string of former border

camps in Thailand during the 13 year civil war. It also is said to have housed

thousands of war disabled, elderly, and children.

Anlong Veng also served

as an important logistics base for the faction and was the center of a massive

logging enterprise which reportedly put millions of dollars into the faction's

coffers.

Fighting is expected to continue through the dry season, and the

Royal Government has said it will attempt to capture the Khmer Rouge's symbolic

headquarters at Pailin.

But lack of ammunition has hindered the

government efforts for several months. Unless the government can acquire large

shipments of heavy ammunition it is unlikely they can launch an offensive on

Pailin, defense analysts say.

In addition, "if they cannot get heavy

ammunition, [the government] will be obliged to withdraw from Anlong Veng," one

Phnom Penh based foreign military analyst said.

But accurate details on

the fighting are difficult to determine. The government has imposed a blackout

on information and ordered their commanders to refuse to give details to

diplomats, defense attaches, and journalists.

Propaganda, misinformation,

and exaggerations have been the order of the day from both the government and

the Khmer Rouge.

What is clear, according to government and diplomatic

sources is the price in casualties was high for the government offensive which

has gone on for more than a month.

KR spokesman Mak Ben said the

government had rejected an offer of talks.

He said: "The war will not

solve the problem. The war has lasted fifteen years. They are fighting in the

16th dry season. The military situation will not change the balance of forces.

"We are ready to start the technical group [for peace negotiations]. We

have requested and continue to request to sit down and talk but the only reply

has been the attack on Anlong Veng.

"With fighting, rehabilitation and

reconstruction is out of the question. There can be no peace, no security, and

no foreign investment. It is not just a question of win or lose. It is a

question of life and death. In the question of life and death, we have to choose

life," he said

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