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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shoring up the gains of the push

Shoring up the gains of the push

B ATTAMBANG - If there's one thing that's clear as the four-month dry season offensive

against the Khmer Rouge in Battambang province comes to a close, it's that the RCAF

is studiously observing orders from high command not to talk.

Unlike the '94 offensive when journalists were free to tag along with the troops,

and even rode into Pailin on the tops of armoured personnel carriers with tins of

paté in their rucksacks, the "Big Push" this year has generally

been off-limits to the press.

Questions posed to government and military officials on the achievements and costs

of the latest round of fighting are met with a stony silence. Visits last week to

the 5th Region Military Headquarters, the Battambang office of the RCAF General Staff,

the Governor's office and the local civilian and military hospitals all resulted

in a stern, if polite: "No comment."

As one RCAF officer at the military hospital said: "I know everything, but please

understand, I am under orders not to talk."

At the very least, the strict policy of not talking to the press is in stark contrast

to previous RCAF military operations and indicates a significant tightening of military

discipline among the officer corps.

NGOs and western security officials in Battambang, as well, say they have been kept

in the dark, unlike in previous years, and have had to glean information from second

hand sources, local villagers, monks and personal visits to outlying districts.

However, according to a variety of sources who declined to be named, the general

picture of the recent offensive, as the rainy season draws near, is that while the

KR have been pushed back on several fronts, the cost in terms of wounded and dead

has been very high. As many as 1,500 casualties - maybe more - have been incurred

in the last four months.

Moreover, the key question is whether the RCAF can consolidate what gains have been

made to avoid a complete reversal once the rains start and dirt roads become impassable.

"Things could be crucial in the next month," said one western analyst,

"but the test is if [the RCAF] can consolidate outside of Treng, prevent an

IDP explosion and adjust their lines."

An RCAF officer interviewed in Treng on April 26 said the army was doing just that.

His unit of 700 marines from the Ream naval base had been pulled back from the front

lines and, along with three T-54 tanks, a 130 mm artillery piece and assorted other

heavy weapons, were digging in for the rainy season. Crates of tank and artillery

shells could be seen everywhere, backing up what sources say is an RCAF operation

with "tremendous stockpiles" of ammunition.

According to the soldier, RCAF units were within two to five kms outside Pailin (23

kms west of Treng) and sporadic fighting was taking place daily. Pailin had already

been evacuated of all KR soldiers and civilians, with guerrilla units retreating

to more secure hillside positions.

The soldier also said that the troops were getting paid but that salaries were late,

with February's having just been allotted. Combat pay of 2,000 riels per day were

being added to regular daily salaries of 800 riels. Military rice supplies were ample,

although troops had to buy their own clean water which was being trucked in from

Battambang.

Troop strength on the Route 10 front was impossible to confirm. One source said that

5,000 RCAF soldiers were involved in the push towards Pailin north of Rt. 10 and

another 2,000 on the southern side. Estimates of the troop numbers involved in the

push from the north against Klar Ngop were put at two to three thousand.

Eight truckloads of fresh "fighting police" were seen heading past Treng

to the front on Apr 26, replacing a unit of 600 who left Battambang on Apr 25 to

return to their home in Svay Rieng.

The issue of casualties is especially sensitive. One RCAF medical officer interviewed

in Battambang stated adamantly that wounded and dead totalled no more than 250 after

four months of fighting. Other sources disagree.

Figures from the Provincial Hospital in Battambang show that between Jan 19 and Mar

7 a total of 257 soldiers were admitted for either combat or mine-related wounds.

The Battambang military hospital was off limits to the press, but a cursory glance

at the four wards indicated that the 200-bed facility was packed with wounded soldiers,

including recuperating troops who had strung hammocks along the verandas of all the

wards. Figures for the hospitals in Monkol Borei and Sisophon were not available.

One source in Battambang that keeps track of mine-related incidents stated that for

the three-month period to March a total of 406 military personnel were known to have

been wounded by mines in Battambang province alone. He added that many casualties

went unreported especially with regard to soldiers who were killed or wounded in

remote areas.

Sources say that the advance against Klar Ngop was particularly difficult due to

the widespread presence of mines, and that many RCAF soldiers were injured by mines

without ever having seen any Khmer Rouge.

At Wat Kamphaeng where cremations take place, one source said that over 100 soldiers

had been creamated there in the last three months. It was said that two soliders

were posted at the crematorium all the time, and the source declined to speak at

length saying, "I'm afraid the soldiers will kill me." The temple compound

was littered with huge stacks of wood so family members could buy sufficient stocks

for the ceremonies.

In spite of the number of casualties, it was generally agreed by all sources that,

compared to '94, the RCAF was much better prepared to deal with its wounded. Four

mobile medical teams were deployed in the field with a staff of ten doctors and nurses

each. Blood supplies were adequate, and military ambulances available.

Estimates of the number of Khmer Rouge troops in the province vary from 1,500 to

2,200. One western analyst said that the combined number of KR troops in the province

was larger than anything they have put up since '91. Operating in small units, the

KR are able to move widely and relatively easily; a force of 150 KR guerrillas were

sighted 15 kms west of Mong Russei on Apr 26. It was also reported that the KR general

Ta Mok was in charge of military operations, directing movements from a base south

of Phnom Malai.

Sources speculated that the Khmer Rouge will try to rout RCAF units protecting Rt.

10. Reports already indicate that small bands of guerrillas are slipping behind major

outposts and mining the road.

As well, there is general agreement that the KR will try to cut Rt. 5 somewhere between

Pursat and Battambang. Since January, 12 bridges have been destroyed on the major

land link between Phnom Penh and the Kingdom's second largest city. The rail link

has been completely cut.

While western officials say that the bridge demolitions "are done very professionally",

indicating KR sabotage, even this can't be confirmed. It's noted that all the bridges

are regularly manned by RCAF troops and that units at each bridge are able to extort

about 1,000,000 riels ($400) per day from traffic. When the bridges are destroyed,

this figure goes up as traffic has to stop and soldiers have more time to finagle

"road fees".

The damage to bridges, primarily around Mong Russei, has already prevented fuel trucks

from making the trip to Battambang, such that the city is now short of deisel for

its generators, causing regular power outages. Added to this is the fear that the

KR might rocket Battambang airport, which would send panic waves through the local

community and might cause foreign aid workers to pull out completely.

On why the RCAF wasn't able to take Pailin, as they did in '94, one source said wistfully:

"They gave it their best shot", noting that the military wanted to maintain

adequate supply lines and avoid the kind of desparate rout which took place two years

ago.

When all is said and done, if the RCAF gets pushed back to Treng during the rainy

season - which many observers expect - and from where this year's offensive started

four months ago, then the key question will be: "Was it all worth it?"

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