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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - KR forces may be slashed in half

KR forces may be slashed in half

NEGOTIATIONS between the Royal Government and the breakaway Khmer Rouge faction in

the northwest may result in a reduction of the KR's fighting strength by as much

as half.

At the Post's press time negotiations were continuing, but a senior RCAF source said

he expected all KR units based in Cambodia's northwest to switch allegiance to the

Royal Government by the end of September.

Of the 22 divisions which make up the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK),

eight, including two of its strongest, have been directly involved in talks with

the government, while another two based in Pursat and Koh Kong provinces are expected

to enter negotiations within a few months.

Western military observers say the "defections", if they can be sustained,

will effectively neutralize Khmer Rouge resistance in the northwest of Cambodia,

isolating the remaining KR forces within a thin strip of territory along the Thai

border between Anlong Veng in Siem Reap and Preah Vihear province.

In all, as many 4,000 KR troops may have split from the Maoist group which has waged

war against successive Phnom Penh governments since 1979.

"These developments could have an enormous impact on the KR's fighting machine,

weakening them militarily and economically," said one western military source

who requested anonymity.

"However, nothing firm has developed yet and many questions remain unanswered.

This is not a defection in the usual sense of the word, so just what is the deal?

Will they keep their weapons, will the government be granted access to these areas?

No one knows yet and much of what has been said could easily be misinformation.

"It's far to early to draw any concrete conclusions."

Nontheless, it seems improbable that the Khmer Rouge, even if negotiations fail,

can remain a cohesive fighting force for much longer. Analysts say its ammunition

stocks are low and it was forced to conserve heavy artillery shells during the last

dry season offensive.

Those analysts also point to the use of "punji" stakes and home made mines

to replace dwindling stocks of manufactured land mines. Foreign intelligence sources

are now convinced the flow of weapons from China has dried up and weapons must now

be bought on the Thai and Cambodian black markets, or from the KR's foe, the Cambodian

army.

In all, the Khmer Rouge is believed to have between seven and ten thousand troops,

with three to four thousand in the Pailin-Phnom Malai region, three to four thousand

in the northern command centered on its Anlong Veng stronghold and the remainder

scattered around the country.

NADK divisions 415 and 450 have been involved in negotiations with RCAF deputy chief

of Staff, Nhiek Bun Chhay and Co-Defense Minister Tea Chamrath since late June.

According to sources the commanders of both divisions agreed to switch allegiance

to the Royal Government in early August.

Cambodian military intelligence estimates Division 415, under the command of Mit

Chien and based at Pailin, consists of 1500 soldiers and 13,000 civilians.

In Khmer Rouge terminology, the word civilian includes non-combatant troops tasked

with logistic and other support roles.

Division 450, under the command of Sok Pheap and based at Phnom Malai, consists of

900 troops and 8,500 civilians, but western observers claimed the figures for both

units seemed unrealistically high.

Any estimate of the exact number of troops who have switched allegiance is further

complicated by unconfirmed reports that fighters from both units are said to have

joined Front 250 which is commanded by Ny Korn.

Ny Korn, whose command includes NADK Divisions 320, 705, 948 and 531 which are located

in territory between Pailin and Phnom Malai, remained loyal to ideological hard-liners

Ta Mok and Son Sen following the KR's denunciation of Ieng Sary.

Negotiations finalizing the "defections" of Divisions 415 and 450 were

concluded in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet in early August, but they remained

under threat from divisions making up Front 250 which, according to Thai press reports,

mounted both ground and artillery attacks on their former comrades.

However, Ny Korn met with senior RCAF officers on August 11 to talk about terms and

conditions of his command's "defection" to the Royal Government, but at

press time no details of any settlement were available.

In addition, according to Cambodian military intelligence reports, NADK divisions

518 and 519, consisting of about 600 combat troops and based in Banteay Meanchey

province were also prepared to switch allegiance as of mid-August.

The apparent domino effect following the breakaway of Divisions 415 and 450 may even

have spread as far east as Kratie province, where 70 KR defectors are said to have

surrendered to provincial authorities on or about August 13.

Ministry of Information spokesman, Sieng Lapresse, said the group had quit their

base in Chlong on the border of Kratie and Kompong Cham.

"This is a very symbolic defection," Lapresse said. "This area is

the cradle of the Khmer Rouge, but it had become isolated from the central command.

"RCAF has cut their supply and communications lines through Kompong Thom province

and the news from the west was demoralizing. Like everybody else these guys became

tired of the fighting - tired of no medicine and no schools for their children."

But Ministry of Defense spokesman, Chum Sambath, said he had not heard of the Kratie

defections.

"I do not think it is true," he said.

Nonetheless, several international observers, while cautious in predicting the exact

outcome of the ongoing negotiations in Cambodia's northwest, agreed they were of

enormous importance.

"This is a very significant chunk of territory for both the Royal Government

and the Khmer Rouge ideological hard-liners. This area is the principle axis of the

KR's economic strength as a result of timber and gem trading - this is the heart

of their economic power," said one.

"Strategically the territory the KR now control has been slashed in half - communications,

logistics and transport, the ability to shift troops and political cadre will be

very much more difficult.

"[But] those people who are declaring the Khmer Rouge dead know little about

Cambodian history or the history of the KR. The KR has managed to survive as a force

to be reckoned with, despite its tradition of splits and internal purges - a tradition

which goes back to the organization's very beginnings in the Indo-Chinese Communist

movement of the 1930's.

"That region [the north-west] has never been under the control of the central

government - it's the "wild west" with brigands making their own deals

and doing their own thing...

"Given the terrain, and the independence these units appear to be demanding,

they can stay relatively autonomous and that would be typical of the pattern of multiple

warlord fiefdoms which have dominated that part of the country for a thousand years."

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