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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - General eludes dragnet

General eludes dragnet

FUNCINPEC strongman Nhek Bun Chhay is believed alive, embarked on a perilous jungle

trek to join the remnants of the party's hardliners in Cambodia's northwest.

Wearing a "magic" jacket, Bun Chhay supposedly escaped injury when a bullet

struck him but bounced off - at least according to several soldiers who were with

him - as he fled from pursuing CPP soldiers and police.

Stories of the Funcinpec General's desperate break-out from Phnom Penh have emerged

with the testimonies of several of his soldiers who were later captured.

With a dwindling band of men, Bun Chhay was last week said to be striking for the

northwestern border with Thailand on foot. Complaining of aches and pains "from

the legs to the arms", he at one point stopped for a massage from one of his

men.

Some of his former soldiers say they had to eat leaves to survive, while Bun Chhay

gave others money, telling them to buy - not steal - food if they got lost.

CPP posses tracked Bun Chhay through three provinces, at times coming within several

hundred meters of him. Many of his soldiers and loyal deputies were captured or killed,

and others fell exhausted, along the way.

While rumors of his death have swirled through Phnom Penh, the state of Bun Chhay's

health, and his whereabouts, remain a matter of speculation and, perhaps, myth.

Some Funcinpec sources claim Bun Chhay is already in Thailand, ready to join the

nascent resistance in northern Cambodia, while CPP say he was last reported to be

in Kampong Chhnang province.

Bun Chhay, the Funcinpec-appointed deputy chief of staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed

Forces (RCAF), is undoubtedly the most powerful commander of the party's now-shattered

military. A warrant for his arrest, as well as three other chiefs - at least one

of whom, Ho Sok, was summarily executed - has been issued.

The end of Bun Chhay's Phnom Penh days began on Sunday, July 6, around 8 in the morning,

at the peak of that weekend's factional fighting. He led as many as 100 troops out

of his encircled Tang Krasang base near Pochentong Airport for the last time, as

CPP forces and eight tanks pounded the base with heavy shelling from three directions.

"We had no way to escape except by moving to the east. I was on my moto but

he [Bun Chhay] was walking. I was asked to lead the way for Nhek Bun Chhay,"

recalled Chum Buntha, who was later captured by CPP and is now back at Tang Krasang

undergoing re-education.

Bun Chhay's group headed for the front-line of Tralaok Bek, near the intersection

of Pochentong and Kampuchea Krom blvds, where other Tang Krasang fighters had fought

their way to the previous day.

CPP feared that Bun Chhay was attempting to link up with forces at the besieged compounds

of other Funcinpec leaders in the west of the city. But several of Bun Chhay's soldiers

said his decision was made from the moment he fled Tang Krasang: he was headed to

northwestern Cambodia.

After several hours of fighting around Tralaok Bek, Bun Chhay gave the retreat order

late Sunday afternoon. Under heavy bombardment from CPP tanks close to the university,

he and his men headed through the "Village of 100 houses", in Toul Kok,

as fires swept through the wooden shacks.

Bun Chhay's forces, of 100-200 men, fled through the night, keeping close to one

another, but with little sense of their route, according to several who were later

captured in Kampong Speu.

In the early hours of Monday morning, having crossed one river, they reached the

shore of Boeung Ta Pok lake in Kandal province, west of Phnom Penh.

"Nhek Bun Chhay ordered us to sleep. There was no food, we slept on a piece

of dry land. It was raining but not heavily," said Chan Dy.

Guns, ammunition, and kit were piled on boats hired from local fishermen. Troops

waded through chest-high water, clinging to the boats, Bun Chhay in one of them.

In the deeper sections of the lake they swam.

The fugitives arrived in the Phnom Baset district, near Oudong, around dawn on Monday,

July 7. They scurried for cover into a small forest near the lake where they rested.

Bun Chhay began distributing 10,000 riel to each soldier, said Chan Dy. "He

said, 'In case you lose your way, you will have money to buy food and not rob the

villagers.'"

By this time Bun Chhay had traded the bullet-proof vest he was wearing when he left

Tang Krasang for a 'magic jacket', to protect him in battle.

"It's just a simple jacket with magic things in the pockets," said Chan

Dy.

As they rested in the forest, soldiers massaged the Funcinpec general, who complained

that he had "pain from the legs to the arms".

After a scant half-hour rest, the troops moved off. A dragnet was already in operation.

Oudong district police based at Bat Deng - 10 km west of Phnom Baset on the Kampong

Speu provincial boundary - were informed of a "problem" in Phnom Baset

at 8 am.

"I was told by the police in Kandal that these troops were moving to Oudong

and will fight to get food for their escape. We stationed police at the markets and

strategic points," said local deputy police chief Cheng Bun Sreng.

"A lot of people reported that there were many people running in the rice fields.

There were many small groups [of fugitive soldiers] in many places," he added.

CPP soldiers and police poured into the area. Five divisions were involved, including

RCAF parachute units and Division 1 troops led by former Khmer Rouge commander Keo

Pong, according to Saom Tit, Deputy Chief of Kampong Speu police.

Hun Sen forces were deployed in lines across Kampong Speu province to cut off Bun

Chhay's escape into the forest. That day, there were at least two major clashes between

the opposing forces, as Bun Chhay attempted to dodge the dragnet, pressing resolutely

northwest.

"The forest goes into Kampong Chhnang, then to Battambang, and then to Thailand.

It was his way to escape," said Suon Huoen, administrative chief for Oudong

police.

The fleeing Funcinpec units came within 300 meters of the Bat Deng police station,

according to the official, before they ran into a herd of nervous cows.

"The boys looking after the cows said 'Oh, the cows are disturbed; there are

soldiers over there'," said Suon Houen. CPP police heard the boy's cries and

went over to investigate; Bun Chhay's troops, also hearing the boys, ran off.

A short time later monks at nearby Wat Sokhaharam saw the runaways trudging through

the paddies. RCAF troops arrived at the pagoda soon after but missed their quarry.

"We were really scared even though we are monks and we wear orange robes, because

the bullets do not recognize us," said one monk.

As they moved on, headed toward Kampong Chhnang, Bun Chhay's troops took local villagers

to guide them and then released them as they moved on.

Many of the Tang Krasang renegades abandoned their guns and ammunition as they fled,

and swapped their military khaki for civilian clothes with villagers, local authorities

reported.

According to prisoners, Bun Chhay avoided pitched battles with the CPP units pursuing

him, urging his troops to simply "keep going".

"It looked like we had no direction, we just kept going, running without food.

We grabbed the leaves of trees to eat and kept going. When the fighting was on one

side we ran to the other," recalled Phin Choey, speaking at Bat Deng police

station where he was being held with five other soldiers.

One by one, many of the soldiers gave up the flight and surrendered as the day wore

on.

Human rights investigators reported 72 prisoners were captured in Phnom Baset district

alone. Provincial police authorities were unable to estimate the total number of

Bun Chhay's troops captured, saying that each of the divisions involved in the operation

had taken its own captives.

By dusk on Monday, Bun Chhay's troops had reached Trach Tong commune, close to Kampong

Chhnang province and the safety of Sva Huec forest.

The renegade soldiers bivouacked briefly while several of them went to a nearby village

to buy food. "We slept in wet clothes, we just fell down and slept where we

were," said Chan Dy.

It was a mistake. CPP forces had surrounded them again. Thirty prisoners, including

Gen Ly Seng Hong, were captured before night fell, according to Trach Tong commune

chief, Phon Phouen.

"The troops surrendered to the government and said they couldn't walk anymore.

They were exhausted. When they came over they walked like ducks," said the official.

Ly Seng Hong was executed, according to human rights investigators. Other senior

Funcinpec military leaders believed to have met the same fate when captured, individually

or together, include Gens Chao Sambath, Sam Norin and Maen Bun Thon.

Late on Monday night, Bun Chhay and his men "lost the way", according to

Chan Dy, crossing the railway line which leads northwest to Battambang several times

in the darkness.

The next morning, they clashed with their pursuers, near Ra Smach village. Bun Chhay

himself was hit, one soldier said.

"He fell down and smoke came up from his back but he got up and ran ahead into

the forest," said Keo Kunthea, who believed that "the bullet didn't enter

his body" because of Bun Chhay's magic jacket.

Another soldier, Kol Karona, said Bun Chhay shouted at his men to get down when CPP

forces opened fire.

"About two of three bullets hit him on the back, just after he shouted at us.

Smoke came up from his back... but he was not injured."

Several small groups of Bun Chhay's men escaped into the Sva Huec forest, Kampong

Chhnang, according to provincial police.

A week later, CPP forces said they had discovered the remains of a small camp, where

a hammock, weapons, two backpacks and Nhek Bun Chhay's "fighting map" of

Phnom Penh were found. A trail of blood led away from the camp, police said.

The RCAF Chief of Staff, General Ke Kim Yan, said July 19 that the hunt for Bun Chhay

was focused on Kampong Chhnang .

"We cannot let him flee because he has to receive the punishment for organizing

illegal troops against the government," warned Kim Yan.

Another senior CPP source, asked where Bun Chhay was, pointed at a map of Cambodia

and traced a route from Kampong Chhnang to the northwestern border with Thailand.

"It's a long way," the official shrugged.

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