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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Helicopter Potshots Shoot Down UNTAC Mobility

Helicopter Potshots Shoot Down UNTAC Mobility

Soviet Pilots Gun Shy After First Chopper Shot Down

SIEM REAP - The Khmer Rouge last week shot down and looted an UNTAC helicopter from

which a Russian flight crew had to be rescued in the most hair-raising action seen

yet by U.N. forces in Cambodia.

It was the first time an UNTAC helicopter had been shot down and only the second

time that the Soviet-made helicopters have been hit by machine gun fire in Cambodia,

suggesting a possible escalation of this harassment as a tactic, according to Skylink

Helicopter Group Captain Rafael Zakirov.

As a result of the Nov. 5 incident in Siem Reap province-the most serious of a long

series of pot-shots taken at UNTAC helicopters-UNTAC Air Operations have issued new

regulations requiring prior assurances for ground security before landings, liaising

with the Khmer Rouge before flying over territory they control, and higher minimum

flight altitudes.

It also emphasizes the customary discretion granted a pilot to "terminate the

mission and return [to base] if he deems there is a safety problem."

UNTAC officers in the field are concerned that the Russian pilots have been so rattled

that they will now refuse to travel to many areas, severely constraining mobility

and impairing UNTAC's overall effectiveness.

An appeal has been filed from the field to Phnom Penh for reconsideration of the

order.

According to a Phnom Penh Post reconstruction of events, this is what happened: A

routine trip transporting several members of the Pakistani army battalion back to

their Sector III headquarters base in Samrong at a height of 1100 meters was abruptly

interrupted at 11:20 a.m. when automatic weapons fire hit the left engine oil tank,

spewing hot oil into the chopper's rear cabin.

The crew decided to immediately make an emergency landing, which had to be managed

without one engine. The left engine was shut off after smoke suggested it had caught

fire. The Mi-17 helicopter was still being fired upon and was hit three times as

it dropped into a forested swamp. Before landing deep in muck, a tree branch gashed

a hole in a fuel tank that quickly spread a lethal pool around the downed chopper.

The helicopter came down in Phum Damrai Slap, about 30 kilometers northwest of Siem

Reap, the provincial capital.

"We heard firing first from far away and then closer and we knew they would

be coming to surround us in 10 or 15 minutes," recounted Sector 3 Commander

Tariq Mahmud, who was among those aboard the downed helicopter.

Another helicopter which happened to be in the area was called in, lifting out everyone

but the three-man Russian flight crew, who had orders to remain with their craft

until technicians traveling in a third helicopter could reach them for repairs.

But once the second helicopter was in the air, the firing resumed. "At that

point I ordered the second helicopter to return and pick up the crew," recounted

Zakirov, who was in the third helicopter at the time.

"That's when the real cinema started," recalled Russian Army Maj. Roustam

Saliakhov, 30, who played a leading role rescuing his compatriots in a hail of rifle

fire. "We were hovering and they were running towards us-in the swamp up to

here," the Afghanistan veteran said, pointing to his upper thigh.

"They were screaming and we were yelling 'come on come on'-the last one grabbed

the ladder and we pulled him in at an altitude of about 10 meters from the ground

as we took off."

This was all under rifle fire from a distance of about 50 meters. In retrospect,

Saliakhov said, "It was probably just meant to harass us but at the time we

didn't know that. It was pretty real for us."

In the meantime, the Bangladeshi battalion had rounded up all four faction military

liaison officers in Siem Reap for a meeting at Sector 2 headquarters. At the time

Khmer Rouge Brig. Gen. Yim Phana of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK)

said it was unlikely that his forces were responsible and said they certainly were

not trying to bring down the second helicopter.

"If it was NADK and we wanted to shoot it down, the helicopter would never have

come back to Siem Reap," he told the Post through an interpreter.

The waning afternoon hours were spent trying to establish radio contact with high-level

Khmer Rouge authorities in Pailin to see if security could be assured for a mission

to retrieve the helicopter that day.

A mission mounted the following morning included the NADK official, a military liaison

officer from forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh, U.N. military observers, Bangladeshi

officers and six armed soldiers.

First the NADK official was dropped out for a 10-minute private consultation before

he waved in the helicopter. The mission seeking to retrieve the damaged helicopter

was in for a slight surprise.

The downed "bird" had been ravaged during the night, stripped of everything

from seats and parachutes to expensive navigational equipment. Diesel tanks had been

axed and the windows mashed for good measure. Practically the only thing spared were

two fuel tanks on top of the craft which allowed the helicopter to be flown out later

that day.

"They had to fly back without any navigational aids, just looking out the window

at the road below," said a Russian officer.

The craft was flown to Phnom Penh for repairs. Afterwards, UNTAC officers in Siem

Reap took the opportunity to remind the factions they would be held financially responsible

for all additional costs they cause UNTAC. It remains unclear exactly how the factions

can be held accountable.

The Khmer Rouge insist that their forces, which have two units in the area near where

the firing on the helicopter first began, were not responsible. They said locals,

many of whom are armed, were probably frightened and fired on the helicopter. UNTAC

officials say this is implausible, if only because to hit a helicopter at its original

flight altitude would have probably required an anti-aircraft machine gun.

Recently the NADK commander in the western part of Sector II issued a warning that

UNTAC should be sure to ask permission before entering their area.

Apparently to reinforce this there have been several recent incidents of U.N. military

observers coming under shelling soon after arriving in villagers to investigate ceasefire

violations allegedly committed by NADK forces.

A planned follow-up investigation by U.N. military observers the on the Nov. 5 incident

was obstructed when the NADK said that security could not be assured because of an

alleged counterattack by Phnom Penh forces.

"That is bullshit," responded a U.N. military observer. "This place

is deep in NADK territory and [Phnom Penh forces] are not strong enough to attack

there. They just want to sanitize the place before we get there."

The mission was jettisoned anyway because of the new order issued to the Russian

pilots, who were now refusing to travel anywhere off main routes.

"We will land only after the Sector Commander can assure security," said

Zakirov.

The first time UNTAC helicopters were hit by machine gun fire was in July, when a

co-pilot was injured in the elbow. This occurred in Sector III over territory believed

to be controlled by NADK.

Most potshots taken at U.N. helicopters are thought to be NADK mischief. But Sector

II UNTAC military sources say they believe other instances are the work of State

of Cambodia forces, because of where they occur.

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