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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Factional fighting jolts the northwest

Factional fighting jolts the northwest

BATTAMBANG - A week of political violence in the northwest saw occupying troops take

up positions in Battambang, allegations of summary executions, the take-over of the

town's central police station and the cutting of Route Five.

Phnom Penh leaders eventually moved decisively to subdue the tensions - suspending

the four top provincial officials - but police and military here say it will be hard

to forget the deaths and bitter divisions which shook Battambang.

What sparked the unprecedented violence between Funcinpec and Cambodian People's

Party (CPP) loyalists is itself hotly disputed.

Differing versions of the trigger point include feuding over Khmer Rouge defector

allegiances, irregular troop and weapon movements, or disputes over land and logging

revenues.

Numbers killed or injured in the on-off fighting are unknown but Funcinpec officials

claim 10 of their forces were killed, while CPP officials say only that they had

lost "many" troops.

Aid agencies and military sources estimated at least 21 had been killed or injured

and said ambulances were being dispatched from Sisophon in the north during the confrontations.

In perhaps the most extraordinary event, more than 500 so-called "Blue Khmer"

- former KPNLF soldiers loyal to Funcinpec, identifying themselves with blue bandannas

- moved 100km south from neighboring Banteay Meanchey province to take up positions

in northern Battambang.

Funcinpec officials say hostilities erupted when their troops intercepted soldiers

loyal to the CPP as they traveled into the former Khmer Rouge district of Samlot,

south of Pailin.

Funcinpec deputy governor Serey Kosal - one of the four local leaders since suspended

by Phnom Penh - claimed his troops stopped around 200 CPP soldiers moving into Samlot,

near Phnom Thippedey in Battambang's southern Moung district, Feb 9.

"It was an unauthorised troop movement of around seven trucks, and weapons moving

into Samlot...we told them that if they went in to Samlot they would not be permitted

to return," Kosal said.

But CPP military claimed the troops and trucks were being used to move logs and to

construct a road into Samlot, "to help the Samlot people".

CPP military commander of the northwest's Region Five, General Hul Savoan - also

since suspended - said Funcinpec troops tried to stop CPP troops on a logging truck

traveling into Samlot.

"Serey Kosal confiscated the log truck and disarmed the RCAF and Samlot troops,"

Savoan said.

Subsequent fighting at Phnom Thippedey and nearby Koh Kralor village sent civilians

scrambling for safety, prompted the "Blue Khmer" forces to move into Battambang

province, and severed Cambodia's major highway, Route Five, in three places.

Provincial sources said CPP officials closed Route Five north of Battambang Feb 14

after the "Blue Khmer" troops from Nimith and Thmar Pouk, moving into support

Funcinpec troops, clashed with CPP militia.

"I have worked on Route Five for ten years, at times it has become dangerous

because of the Khmer Rouge, but this is the first time the road has been closed by

the government," said the military police chief at the Andong Cheng check point

on the northern edge of Battambang.

Tensions in Battambang town reached a peak the same day when 20-30 Funcinpec police

took over the central police station, firing into the police yard and confiscating

weapons. There were few CPP police in the compound, so a major confrontation was

avoided, witnesses said.

"At first it was only police leaders who were divided but after this incident

police down to the lower ranks separated along political lines," said Battambang

policeman Im Chu.

In the town, the deputy governor Kosal's house resembled a military headquarters,

guarded by an armoured personnel carrier, machine guns and close to 60 Funcinpec

and former Samlot Khmer Rouge troops.

A double amputee, who sat guarding the entrance with three hand grenades strapped

to his waist, said he had two more grenades under the cushion of his wheelchair in

case of a suprise attack on the residence.

As Phnom Penh defence chiefs flew in and out of the province for emergency meetings,

and agreements were made for all troops to withdraw to their bases, the feuding parties

continued to hold their positions.

Second deputy governor Nam Tum (CPP) said that CPP tanks moving up Route Five towards

pro-royalist troops Sunday night were "just to defend the town". General

Savoan said he had not ordered troops to attack Funcinpec but that "local militia

had taken their own action".

Funcinpec officials alleged a series of summary executions of stray bands of Funcinpec

soldiers were carried out by CPP military during the crisis.

Sun Po, a 25-year-old Funcinpec soldier from Sdao, on Route 10 toward Pailin, said

he survived a mass execution carried out by the CPP commander from Rattanak Mondol

district, who he identified.

Po, who had bullet wounds in the wrist, neck and side, said he and four other Funcinpec

soldiers were returning on motos to their base in Sdao, at 10am on Feb 12, when they

were seized by the commander and his offsiders.

"We were taken 6 kilometers into the forest off Route 10 and were shot... I

pretended I was dead but the other four were killed," said Po who said he had

reported the incident to a local human rights organisation.

Funcinpec officials Kosal and Battambang police chief Vorn Chhun Ly claimed that

over a three day period, 10 Funcinpec troops were "picked off" in shootings

along Routes Five and 10.

"Major Keo Panharith was shot and killed on the road on his way to Phnom Thippedey

- he was not killed in battle," Serey Kosal said.

"The Phnom Penh delegations must show charity to my soldiers because if they

were killed in fighting, in war, it is normal but these were executions. We want

the culpits arrested."

Military observers say the CPP-Funcinpec rivalry over Samlot was the flashpoint for

the week of violence.

They say existing tensions erupted initially when a Dec 23 visit of the First Prime

Minister to Samlot was cancelled because pro-CPP commanders, upset when pro-Funcinpec

Pailin troops arrived, refused to provide security for his arrival.

Khmer Rouge defectors from Samlot, based at Kosal's house during the confrontations,

claimed they had been forced out of Samlot by pro-CPP commanders who were "forcing

villagers in Samlot to join the CPP".

"The Samlot leaders were providing up to 10,000 baht [$400] from logging profits

to families who supported the CPP. About 80 percent of families received the money,"

said Tri Kim Hong a 32-year-old soldier who lived in Samlot for 13 years.

"On Jan 2 Keo Pong ordered the shooting of leaders who opposed Samlot leaders...I

don't know why that problem arose," he said.

Kim Hong, whose wife and three children are still in Samlot said around 200 Khmer

Rouge defectors from Samlot fled into the forest and Battamabng after the unrest,

and that he is now unable to go home.

"Unless the government resolves the problem in Samlot it will be too dangerous

to return," said Kim Hong.

CPP, meanwhile, accused the Samlot rebels of being aligned with Anlong Veng hardliners

still loyal to Pol Pot who wanted to retake the area.

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