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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ieng Sary juggles Samlot players

Ieng Sary juggles Samlot players

P AILIN - Former Khmer Rouge chiefs are attempting to broker peace talks between Samlot

renegades and the government, as battles in the district south of this gem-rich city

have pushed the refugee total in Thailand to 50,000.

Democratic National Union Movement (DNUM) president Ieng Sary, rejecting bids by

both the Samlot resistance and the government to take sides, said last week he would

remain neutral.

In negotiations with the government, Sary pledged to fortify his own "borders"

-and asked the government to do the same - to try to keep the conflict out of DNUM's


At the same time, he agreed to try to bring the Samlot rebels - who are former KR

defectors who initially aligned themselves with the Cambodian People's Party (CPP)

- to the negotiating table with the government.

Plying a dual track of isolation and intervention, Pol Pot's former foreign minister

presented himself as a peace-maker, while further entrenching his economically and

militarily autonomous zone.

Pailin is the linchpin in Cambodia's fractious northwest. Should its troops join

either side, it would considerably enlarge the war between Funcinpec and KR resistance

fighters and the government.

Both sides have courted the DNUM leadership - ostensibly in the name of peace.

"Samlot sent a letter to Pailin to request Pailin to negotiate with the government

on September 17. [Minister of Defense] Tea Banh arranged to come to Pailin on the

25th after we received the letter from Samlot," Sary said.

The DNUM chief said that his men were in radio contact with the leaders of the Samlot

uprising, Ta Muth and Iem Phan, but no timetable for negotiations had been made.

"We have sent our request to Samlot, but have received no reply yet," he

said. Speculating that recent gains made by the Samlot resistance had spoiled their

initial appetite for negotiation, he said: "Now in Samlot, Ta Muth and Iem Phan

are stronger than the government troops. So that is one of the other difficulties

to negotiate with Samlot."

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) troops have retreated about 20km in three weeks,

according to forward-artillery soldiers near Treng, on Route 10 to Pailin.

RCAF commanders denied that they had lost ground, but admitted that they were concerned

the Samlot group could pose a threat to both Routes 5 and 10 in Battambang province.

As fighting intensified in the past few weeks, tens of thousands fled to the north

and west. "One-fourth of the population is here on the government side,"

said Samlot District Chief Phan Sophal. He said that there were about 30,000 living

in the district before the fighting.

According to the Thai government, 28,000 people had fled to Trat province by Oct

7, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Head of Liaison,

Guiseppe de Vicentis.

"So far, we could not carry out a census or registration so we do not know where

these people are from," he said. "But we consider this an official figure,

bringing the total number in Thailand to 50,000."

An estimated 1,000 KR and royalist forces are fighting the government in Samlot,

according to RCAF and district officials. The government has previously claimed that

KR hardliners in Anlong Veng have sent troops to support Ta Muth and Iem Phan in

Samlot. Ta Muth is a relative of Ta Mok, the Anlong Veng military commander.

The Funcinpec resistance based in the northern border town of O'Smach, some 200km

away, is also reported to be assisting the Samlot rebels - and former top Funcinpec

security official Serey Kosal said he hoped to use Samlot as a base to attack southern

areas of Cambodia.

A key issue for RCAF is where DNUM - which has an estimated 5,000 soldiers and police

- stands in the conflict.

Pailin is known to have had previous acriminous relations with the Samlot rebels.

Ta Muth and Iem Phan were both imprisoned in Pailin after leading a botched offensive

on the town in July last year, an attack ordered by Anlong Veng to try to bring Ieng

Sary's breakaway faction under control.

While Pailin and Samlot would therefore seem unlikely to become allies now, RCAF

officials are more concerned about possible links between Samlot, DNUM and the Funcinpec

resistance in O'Smach. Some RCAF officers privately allege that DNUM has offered

sanctuary to Funcinpec forces from O'Smach.

Ieng Sary, in an Oct 3 interview, insisted on DNUM's neutrality.

Sary said that at the Sept 25 meeting with Minister of Defense Tea Banh - who was

accompanied by generals Meas Sophea, Mol Roeup and Tum Sambol - an agreement was

struck to strengthen DNUM's borders.

"We requested the government to let us have four months to reinforce our troops.

To make our neutral stance," he said. "We want to reinforce our troops

around the border."

At the same time, he said, "we requested that the government let us have four

months to reinforce troops around our border and make sure we have no problem with

the government..."

One factor Sary said he was concerned about was the stance of the CPP-aligned Front

250 which controls a swathe of territory between Pailin and the other main DNUM town

of Phnom Malai.

The Front 250 commander, Ny Korn, has extensive experience in Samlot and has spurned

advances by DNUM to join. Like Pailin, the Front could play a pivotal role in the

military balance of power in the area.

"We want to contact Ny Korn about the situation now. We haven't been in contact

directly, but his men said sometime soon - really soon," he said. "It depends

if the government trusts us, [if they] don't suspect us of making a strong army,"

he said, acknowledging RCAF concerns about any communication between DNUM and other

former KR.

As for the Samlot rebels, Sary warned that if they attempted to attack Pailin, DNUM

may join with the government army to fight them.

"If Samlot attacks us, we will join the government and they will face difficulty.

Our troops don't need to join the government to fight an attack on us, but if we

can't protect [Pailin] we will ask for assistance."

While declining to give numbers, he claimed that he had enough men, arms and ammunition

to fend off any attack on Pailin from anyone.

"We have enough troops... We won't [cause] war, but if the case of war happens,

we have to resolve the problem."

Pailin Governor Ee Chhean's chief of cabinet, Maiy Meakk, curtly summarized Sary's

sentiments: "We are neutral, but do not misunderstand," he warned. "We

have thnam klang ['strong tobacco' or 'powerful medicine']."

Ieng Sary said he was keen to diffuse the crisis as soon as possible.

"If negotiations are a success with Samlot, the difficulty will not last for

long. If war continues into the future, there will be problems for everybody."

Meanwhile, Serey Kosal - the hard-talking former deputy governor of Battambang, and

one-time security chief for the ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh - made it plain he

wanted keep the Samlot battle raging.

In an interview with the self-exiled Khmer Journalists Association president Pin

Samkhon in Thailand's Trat province Sept 27, Serey Kosal said he planned to use Samlot

as a platform to extend the resistance.

"I'll do everything to set up a base in Samlot," Samkhon quoted Serey Kosal

as saying. "This base is crucial. We can undertake activities in Koh Kong, Kampot,

Kampong Speu, Kampong Som, Pursat, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey."

Kosal, who escaped to Thailand as the July 5-6 fighting in Phnom Penh began, is a

key aide to Funcinpec resistance chief Nhek Bun Chhay.

Speaking from San Choa camp, just inside Thai territory, Kosal said he was actively

assisting the Samlot fighters, and that the district was more significant that O'Smach

as a resistance front.

"Samlot is thirty times larger than O'Smach, but the geographical conditions

do not necessitate many men to defend it," he said. "You cannot come and

stay here! Only a few militia can kill their [the government's] men daily.

"Now I have ordered improvised mines and five hundred are being made per day.

They are very efficient - one can kill forty men."

Of the RCAF troops' offensive on Samlot, Kosal said: "They have not succeeded

in entering! [They] came, were defeated and retreated.

"Send my words to Hun Sen - that [he] should learn how to wage war... if you

use soldiers in the rainy season, when the dry season comes you cannot even find

a single soldier to fight!" Kosal said with all the typical ebullience that

he became known for during his time as Battambang deputy governor.

"I'll [fight] until I am close to Phnom Penh," he declared. "I have

every possibility."



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