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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - RCAF beefs up troop strength in Preah Vihear

RCAF beefs up troop strength in Preah Vihear

RCAF beefs up troop strength in Preah Vihear

PHUM KULEN - Troops are being airlifted to this remote village in western Preah

Vihear province, raising the possibility of a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces'

assault on Khmer Rouge-occupied territory.

In what could result in a

significant push against areas the Khmer Rouge have controlled for years,

thousand of RCAF soldiers are being mustered.

A senior Phnom Penh

government official confirmed plans were afoot - despite government denials of

any dry-season offensives - to mount an assault near the famous Preah Vihear

temple on the Thai border.

"We want to re-take the areas surrounding the

Preah Vihear temple," said the official, who requested anonymity. "But to take

the temple itself, we will need the cooperation of the Thais."

A Western

diplomat in Phnom Penh said the RCAF's troop strength in the province was being

raised to 10,000.

Any initial battle is likely to occur near the ancient

Preah Vihear temple. The temple itself - situated high atop a mountain range

accessible easily only from the Thai side - is of symbolic but little strategic

value.

However, if such an assault takes place it could test Thailand's

assertion that it has stopped aiding the Khmer Rouge and is mending fences with

Phnom Penh.

The Post witnessed the arrival of 120 RCAF troops flown to

Phum Kulen village - one of four Preah Vihear towns controlled by the government

and the logical forward base for an attack - on Jan 4.

A local army chief

said the airlift was part of a military build-up to take the town of a RCAF

force to 3,000 soldiers, About 70 per cent of that number were already in the

town, 40Km west of the provincial capital T'Beng Meanchey.

A MI-17

helicopter ferried the 120 soldiers, armed with recoilless rifles, rocket

launchers and other weapons, to Phum Kulen from the village of Phum Bos, 60Km to

the south in Kompong Thom province, where they had been stationed for many

months.

Source say truckloads of troops have also been moving north on

Route 12 to Preah Vihear from Kompong Thom, though mines are hampering the

transfers.

General Khann Sovoern, the Fourth Military Region commander

based in Siem Reap, denied any major military activity was planned around Phum

Kulen.

The troop transfer there was a "normal rotation" made possible by

improved security in Phum Bos, he said.

Meanwhile, the KR are boosting

numbers in Preah Vihear province, said RCAF Fourth Military Region Deputy Chief

of staff General Nhek Bun Chhay.

He said notorious one-legged rebel

General Ta Mok had moved his headquarters, taking 800 guerrillas with him, to

Preah Vihear from his former base in Anlong Veng.

The

government-controlled town of Choam Kasan, just 25Km south of the Preah Vihear

temple has been the site of on-again, off again fighting between the RCAF and

the KR for many months.

Observers speculate that the KR are trying to

take control of the entire province in the hope of establishing a more secure

base in the north of the country.

The government controls only four towns

in the province, with travel between them extremely difficult because of

landmines and roving KR fighters. The bulk of the province is covered with

dense, uninhabited jungle, providing ideal cover for guerrilla

warfare.

But the KR no longer has it easy - there have been thousands of

rebel defections in northern Cambodia, along with a beefed-up RCAF presence in

Siem Reap to ensure ready access to the Angkor Wat temple complex by

tourists.

Some are even suggesting that the KR stronghold in Anlong Veng

- a hugely symbolic battlefield which was taken, and then lost, by the RCAF last

year - may soon be a thing of the past. Gen Nhek Bun Chhay went so far as to say

the KR presence in Siem Reap province was "finished".

Meanwhile, the

Government is keeping tight-lipped on whether its apparently highly-successful

amnesty to Khmer Rouge defectors, due to end on Jan 15, will be

extended.

"We will stick to the Jan 15 deadline first, and then we will

see what happens after that," was First Prime Minister Prince Norodom

Ranariddh's only comment on the matter.

Some Royal Cambodian Armed Force

senior commanders are known to have suggested the government extend the amnesty

because of its success to date.

Minister of Information Ieng Mouly would not rule out a continuance of the

amnesty when questioned about it.

"Up to now the Royal government has not

planned to extend the amnesty to the Khmer Rouge yet.... all we do now is

persuade them to defect to us before the deadline," he said:

"I cannot

reveal to you whether the Royal government would or would not extend the

amnesty.... If we said now that the government will extend, it will push the

Khmer Rouge to delay their defections."

Mouly said if the deadline was

not extended, KR who did not defect before Jan 15 could face being charged in

court if they were caught.

According to the law banning the KR, guerrillas could face between one years'

jail to life imprisonment if convicted.

Co Minister of Defense Tea

Chamrath, asked about a possible extension to the amnesty, said: "I know nothing

about this. It is the Royal government and the National Assembly's duty, not

mine... I am just the one who implements it."

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