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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt soldiers take shaky hold on Pailin

Govt soldiers take shaky hold on Pailin

W HITE MANGO VILLAGE -Government forces seized Khmer Rouge controlled areas

around the key guerrilla stronghold of Pailin in an artillery and tank led

attack of 5,000 government troops.

More than 20,000 KR fighters and

civilians fled to Thailand by March 21. But KR units with heavy weapons still

control many surrounding mountains and continue to operate in small units in the

area. Government forces are positioned in isolated jungle outposts that analysts

say will be difficult to hold once the rains set in next month.

KR radio

went off the air for 48 hours, returning with music on 22 March. All regularly

scheduled programming was still suspended at press time. It was the first time

ever that KR broadcasts had been interrupted. Analysts speculated that the

station was dismantled and moved to a secure location during the

fighting.

The refugee flow to Thailand was the heaviest since 1985, and

forced new pressures on Thailand already under enormous international pressure

to halt logistical and other support to the KR.

KR sources confirmed to

the Post that they are facing increasing difficulties maintaining Thai support

to their faction. They say troop and ammunition movements through Thailand to

various KR bases located along the 800 km border have been disrupted.

In

an unusual movement, about 800 KR troops moved from areas around Pailin towards

the Tonle Sap lake in the days before the military offensive, according to

foreign defense analysts and government officials. They say that the forces may

launch guerrilla activities further in the interior or set up new bases in KR

controlled territory.

KR officials told the Post in January, prior to the

assault on Pailin, that they would not attempt to hold the area in the face of a

concerted government military assault. Instead, they said, they have adopted a

new military strategy, ordered by the high command to be employed throughout the

countryside, that will rely on small unit guerrilla tactics. They say that when

the rains commence they will isolate government units by cutting supply lines,

forcing a retreat from areas captured during the dry season, which traditionally

favors a government assault using tanks and supplies moved by

vehicle.

"We will lose some areas, including maybe Anlong Veng and

Pailin," said the KR official," But by the end of the fighting, we will have

more territory than we have now. We will attempt to hold our areas but not at

any cost. If they want it, they can have it. But they can't keep it for

long."

KR officials acknowledge that the loss of Pailin, their official

headquarters, will be a political blow to the group, but they contend it is of

little military significance.

Foreign military analysts warned that the

area is difficult to maintain secure supply lines, especially as the rains

begin, and government positions remain vulnerable to KR

counterattacks.

"It is suicidal," said one foreign military intelligence

analyst, "The mountains, minefields and jungles make the approach very

difficult.

"With the KR strength at 3,000 and the government strength at

5,000, it goes against all the rules of fighting guerrillas. The ratio should be

at least three to one. This is impossible."

Government commanders remain

painfully aware of the disastrous offensive in Anlong Veng last month, where

hundreds of government soldiers were killed and wounded only to lose the KR

stronghold after a few days.

"The situation here is completely different

than Anlong Veng," the governments main field commander, Gen Pol Sarouen, told

reporters at his jungle command post on March 21.

KR units appeared to

have mounted a tactical retreat from the low lying areas, such as Pailin town,

which are surrounded by mountains still under guerrilla control. Government

forces did not occupy Pailin even after the KR withdrew because of fear the

guerrilla's would cut their retreat and rain rockets, mortars, and artillery

from their well defended positions above the town. Gen. Pol Saroeun said less

than 100 KR fighters remained defending the town when government forces advanced

to it.

"We have reached Pailin already, but at the moment we are clearing

up the surrounding areas, " he told reporters on 20 March from his jungle

headquarters 23 kilometers from Pailin town.

Six government divisions,

supported by 10 tanks and artillery units, were involved in the three pronged

attack. These included soldiers from both former guerrilla factions and the

Cambodian Peoples Party.

Pol Sarouen said government forces captured

Pailin at 1800 hours on the 19th of March. "It took us only two days to occupy

Pailin", he said. Pol Sarouen claimed he lost only 7 killed and 22 wounded

during the operation and inflicted "more than 100" killed on the guerrilla

forces. He said that no KR forces were captured or surrendered.

His

claims, and those by other government officials in Phnom Penh in previous days,

were rife with discrepancies and follow a consistent government policy of

propaganda and disinformation that has angered the press, diplomats, and foreign

military observers in recent months.

Dozens of government soldiers

interviewed at front-line positions told conflicting accounts. Some insisted

that Pailin had not fallen to government control as late as March 21. They

complained of lack of water, food, pay, ammunition, and medical

treatment.

Despite official claims, reporters counted more than 150

casualties admitted to hospitals in Battambang.

"The KR retreated, then

shelled us heavily. A lot of our soldiers were wounded," one government soldier

wounded at the front-line told the Post on March 20.

"Many of us were

wounded. I don't know how many, but a lot. We are in a valley with a lot of

mountains around us. We don't even know where we are," he said.

Reporters

traveled along bogged down jungle tracks that weave through some of the most

heavily mined areas in the world. Battambang based officials of the Cambodia

Mine Action Center estimate nearly one million mines litter the countryside in

front-line areas between Battambang and Pailin. Hundreds of red skull and cross

bone signs marked minefields along route 10.

In the dirt tracks past

Treng commune, blown vehicles littered the side of paths. Scores of trucks

carried troops, ammunition, and heavy weapons through the jungle towards newly

captured bases.

Wounded soldiers were seen daily returning from the

front. They complained that many wounded were unable to emerge from isolated

positions deep in the jungle.

At a field hospital on Route 10, soldiers

grimaced in pain from shrapnel wounds as medics injected morphine. Nearby a

weary grunt, Chan Tha,23, complained of difficult conditions at his front-line

unit.

"The KR have many artillery in the hills. We have no water. All the

water sources are poisoned. Six days ago one of my comrades died of poison

water. Yesterday three of my comrades were killed and four were wounded." He

said that his unit had lost eight from its strength of 19 men.

" When

the soldiers drink the water, they vomit, have diarrhea, and dehydration. Many

almost died," said Tha Chambo, an army medic from Phnom Penh treating wounded at

a makeshift field hospital. Soldiers with shrapnel wounds to the head and legs

lay nearby waiting to be evacuated to Battambang city.

While no

laboratory confirmation has been conducted, soldiers universally believed the

threat and were refusing to drink water sources in the jungle.

KR forces

controlled Virgin's Breast mountain overlooking Pailin, while government forces

captured the Khmer Rouge 415 Division base at Baby Elephant mountain.

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