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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Inside the ruins of Anlong Veng

Inside the ruins of Anlong Veng

ANLONG VENG - Through the window of the helicopter the government flag could be

seen flying on the top of a three-story concrete building in the heart of Anlong

Veng. It was the first solid evidence that the Khmer Rouge's northern

headquarters had indeed fallen.

As the Russian Mi-17 landed in a clearing

in the town center near the army's headquarters, a dozen or so walking wounded

soldiers rushed forwards to be evacuated.

The 20 journalists who

arrived, the first civilians in town since it was taken on Feb 5, were herded

into a press conference with Gen Long Sopheap, who masterminded the

operation.

He proudly told how hated Khmer Rouge military commander Ta

Mok had been forced to flee - minus his wooden leg.

"This is a great

victory for the national reconciliation policy of the government and of the

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces [RCAF]," Gen Sopheap said.

"This is also a

great victory of the international community which has helped us, because before

Ta Mok did not allow UNTAC to enter [Anlong Veng] and he wouldn't dare do so,"

he added.

Heavy tolls were recorded on both sides. Fifty government

soldiers were reported killed and 178 other were wounded, mostly by mines during

the offensive.

Government reports said 135 KR were killed and 149

wounded. Five guerrilla fighters were captured and thirteen, including a

general, defected to the royal army.

Outside the press conference,

soldiers were busy loading a truck with war booty stripped from houses, such as

furniture, plastic piping and pots and pans.

Much of value was left

behind by the KR families as they beat a hasty retreat.

When the press

corps appeared some officers realized this didn't make for such good publicity

material and ordered the truck out of sight.

"Why did you guys park the

truck here? Move it back to where it was. Get lost," they told the soldiers

angrily.

The guides were more keen to show off the huge arsenal of

abandoned weapons they had captured and piled up near the command

post.

The inventory included 645 guns, mostly carbines, mortars, 2,600

land mines and 102,000 rounds of ammunition. Most impressive was a sizable

artillery piece. Twenty-nine vehicles were also captured.

The defenders

of the town were also far from hungry, with 1,100 tonnes of rice being

discovered.

Many of the houses, some with surrounding banana plantations,

were destroyed by hammer blows from the government's assault. All that remained

of some was a skeleton of charred pillars with their corrugated iron roofs lying

on the ground.

Front-line officers reported 1,300 houses destroyed, but

also said that most were torched by the guerrillas themselves before they fled.

The elegant seat of Ta Mok took a direct hit from an artillery round and

was destroyed. Government rockets also pulled down a 40-metre radio antenna he

used to direct KR forces in the north of the country.

Soldiers conducting

the press tour said they found an artificial leg belonging to Ta Mok in the

ruins. The limb was taken back on the helicopter on its way to the military

museum in Phnom Penh.

The affluent lifestyle apparent in Anlong Veng was

supported by on logging deals with Thai businessmen, who could easily truck

their illegal cargoes over the border lying just north of the town.

The

assault happened so suddenly that one group of Thai loggers said they bought a

consignment only to find it under new management.

Gen Sopheap said they

would be allowed to ship the logs if they paid for them a second time.

"No problem if they pay money, But we can not recognize how much money

Ta Mok received from them because he is outlawed. If they won't pay we will use

the logs to build houses for our officers," he said.

Unlike other remote

villages where drinkable water can be found only in wells, Ta Mok provided

townsfolk with drinking water from a huge purifying machine.

The

courtyard of his villa is now being used as shelter by government soldiers. They

tried to keep the place clean with graffiti written by charcoal "Take off

shoes."

As the journalists toured around sporadic mortar shelling,

exchanges of gunfire and bomb explosions could still be heard.

Earlier,

Siem Reap Governor Toan Chay, who is also commander of the army's Region 4, said

that thousands of retreating KR had gone north and crossed the border to

Thailand.

But Gen Sopheap later said that they were refused entry by

Thai authorities and are now scattered in small groups near the provincial

border between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear.

He estimated that more than

30,000 people had been living in Anlong Veng and that 3,000 of them had gone to

Svay Leu, in Siem Reap province.

The families of KR fighters chose to

follow their men folk into the jungle and an appeal by government troops for

them to return home went unheeded, the general said.

The re-supply route

to Anlong Veng itself is seriously threatened by mines, and soldiers said that

during the assault they would sometimes dig out more than 200 anti-tank mines in

a one-km stretch of road.

Some 4,200 troops took part in the assault on

the KR stronghold and 1,500 of them remain to defend against possible

counterattack.

Their mood was relaxed after the sheer exhaustion and

stress of days of walking through mine fields to their final goal.

One

soldier was busy decorating his bunker with a Thai-made mattress he found in an

abandoned house.

Others went fishing with mosquito-nets to get a change

of constant diet of dried fish the only rations they have received in addition

to rice.

Private Mao Saret dressed only in black shorts, he emerged

soaked from a pond near Ta Mok's house with small fish he was going to cook for

lunch.

"These are real fish I've never had for long time. I have eaten

only rice with salted fish," Saret complained.

"To make life safer we

have got to demine," Toan Chay said, adding "The Khmer Rouge are trying to

survive. But the best way for them to survive is to come and enjoy the

society."

"I can say Ta Mok is 60 years old, the top leaders [of the KR]

are old and I wait, everybody wait and they wait too for them to die

peacefully," said the governor.

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