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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - RCAF deserters moan of no money, food

RCAF deserters moan of no money, food

ABOUT 300 of 1000 government troops dispatched to Battambang province to combat

Khmer Rouge attacks deserted en masse in early February.

About 50

military police - supported by heavy machine guns and four armored personnel

carriers - were sent to intercept the deserters.

But, after a stand-off,

they were let free after handing over their guns.

"We are busy fighting

against the KR push. I don't want fighting between my troops and the deserters,"

said Lieutenant General Han Hem.

He gave the order for the deserters to

be left alone, but insisted they surrender their weapons to the military police

first.

"Go now, but don't call yourselves soldiers anymore," Lt Gen Hem

said to the deserters, he told the Post.

The deserters were among Royal

Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) troops sent from Kampong Cham province to Bavel

district, about 40km northwest of Battambang town, following repeated KR raids

there.

Lt Gen Hem said some 300 of them went AWOL, heading down Route 5

toward Phnom Penh.

About 25 heavily-armed military police took up

positions near Krek Kdram, about 30km from Phnom Penh, and a similar number at

Oudong, 10km north.

They were equipped with four armored personnel

carriers, part of a shipment of more than 20 recently purchased by the

government from eastern European countries.

"We are waiting here to

intercept deserters coming to Phnom Penh to disturb security in the capital,"

said Meas Mong Kul, one of the military police near Oudong.

The

deserters, meanwhile, established illegal checkpoints to stop vehicles and

demand money along large stretches of Route 5.

"Please give me 3000

riel," said deserter Mao Sokha with a smile, pointing his M-16 rifle at a taxi

carrying a Post reporter on Feb 2.

"I am a deserter from Bavel. I have no

money, position and commander. I need the money to buy food and water. I will

not stay here too long."

Sokha complained of water and food shortages

among the RCAF forces in Bavel, and said they had not yet received their

salaries for December.

"I don't understand why I was sent to war without

food and salary."

He was aware that military police were waiting for the

deserters further down the road, saying: "Please tell them to move their

checkpoints out of our way. I will not disturb security in Phnom Penh. I just

want to see the King and show him my problems.

"I am not scared of the

military police [but] I don't want to fight them. If we do that, they will

accuse us of being Khmer Rouge."

Lt Gen Hem confirmed the men had not

been paid for several months.

"Not only them [but] even me, their boss,

did not receive pay. But I do not complain...this is a battlefield, it is not

the same as the city - we have to struggle."

The deserters, he said, "did

not think about their duty, only about money and food".

"I told them not

to leave, that the fighting would be finished soon and if they left, they would

lose their jobs in the army."

But, to prevent a confrontation with the

deserters, he said he decided not to force the issue.

"I just be quiet on

the matter, but I insisted they leave their arms with me."

The deserters,

however, are believed to have been deterred from going on to Phnom Penh after

being warned they would be arrested there.

Meanwhile, United States

Ambassador Charles Twining has raised the issue of "indiscipline on the part of

soldiers" in Battambang province with the Cambodian government.

In a Feb

3 letter to the co-Prime Ministers, he said that American NGO workers had been

frightened by the behaviour of some soldiers.

"Soldiers reportedly

complain that they are either unpaid or paid only part of their salary, thus

accounting for their aggressiveness toward NGO workers," he wrote.

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