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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Show-down at O'Smach border

Show-down at O'Smach border

ROUTED from Banteay Meanchey province, the anti-Hun Sen resistance has been cornered

near the Cambodian-Thai border town of O'Smach in northern Siem Reap.

O'Smach has become the rallying point for military stalwarts, led by commanders including

Nhek Bun Chhay, Serey Kosal and Lay Vireak, who say they are preparing a lengthy

resistance movement against the Phnom Penh government.

Pushed out of Banteay Meanchey province, to the southwest, several hundred Funcinpec-allied

soldiers retreated to O'Smach through Thailand early this month, joining Funcinpec

forces already there.

Resistance forces lost the Banteay Meanchey border trading town of Poipet, as well

as nearby O'Baichoan, an anti-Vietnamese guerrilla base in 1980s, after several key

former allies sided with the CPP and helped capture the areas.

In the face of a CPP push toward O'Smach, it was unclear at press time whether Nhek

Bun Chhay loyalists would be able to hold the sole remaining Funcinpec resistance

base. CPP-led forces were said to be within 12-20km of the border town, exchanging

rocket and mortar fire with Nhek Bun Chhay's troops.

Between 10,000-30,000 refugees who fled to O'Smach in the face of fighting in Samrong

district were reportedly preparing to evacuate. Thai officials - who sources said

had agreed to permit the refugees to cross the border if the fighting came within

10km of them - have prepared plans for a temporary-asylum camp on Thai soil.

Samrong town, 40km south of O'Smach down Rt 68, earlier exchanged hands several times

in lengthy fighting between resistance and CPP soldiers. At press time, it was in

the hands of CPP forces, who were advancing toward O'Smach.

Nhek Bun Chhay, the resistance military chief, said Aug 8 that he expected a major

CPP attack but was confident of holding O'Smach.

Critical issues are how many soldiers Bun Chhay has - and more importantly, how much

ammunition and food they have - and whether they can count on supplies or other support

from former or current Khmer Rouge elsewhere in northern Cambodia.

Bun Chhay, in an Aug 8 interview, said he had 25,000 soldiers in the O'Smach area,

with enough supplies to last them three months. Days earlier, he had publicly claimed

40,000 soldiers. Thai military officers at Chong Chom, across the border from O'Smach,

believed that Bun Chhay had far fewer. "Maybe two or three thousand," was

one senior Thai commander's estimate.

Bun Chhay indicated that he had been in contact with the KR hard-liners of Anlong

Veng, and the breakaway KR in Pailin and Malai. He said that all the forces would

act "individually" but were united in their opposition to Hun Sen.

In Phnom Penh, General Ke Kim Yan, the CPP-appointed army general chief of staff,

said Aug 11 that O'Smach would be captured within a week. He claimed the resistance

had only 300 "real" soldiers - and "maybe" some KR troops from

Anlong Veng - and most of the people at O'Smach were civilians.

After capturing O'Smach, Phnom Penh-controlled forces would attack the KR stronghold

of Anlong Veng, 70km to the east, to try to prevent resistance forces from taking

sanctuary there, Ke Kim Yan said.

Military observers said that, if ousted from O'Smach, Bun Chhay's forces would likely

try to join up with Anlong Veng guerrillas believed to be in rough jungle as close

as 15km east of Rt 68 between Samrong and O'Smach.

KR radio broadcasts from Anlong Veng have voiced support for "all nationalist

forces" who oppose Hun Sen. However, the positions of Pailin and Malai commanders

- who defected to the government last year but retain autonomy - is less clear.

In the wake of CPP's routing of Funcinpec forces in Phnom Penh July 5-6, Pailin and

Malai's political chief Ieng Sary appealed for an end to all fighting and called

for free and fair elections. Sary described the fighting in Phnom Penh, and also

the reported purge of Pol Pot in Anlong Veng, as "bloody conflicts" in

a "competition to grab power", but refrained from directly supporting either

Hun Sen or Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Meanwhile, General Sok Pheap, the former chief of KR forces in Phnom Malai, told

Reuters that both Funcinpec and CPP forces had asked for his support. He said he

refused to take sides, "but if anyone attacks us, we will have to fight back".

Sok Pheap added that the cause of fighting between forces loyal to the two Prime

Ministers was Funcinpec's negotiations with Anlong Veng, and decried Pol Pot's reported

arrest as "a lie".

Sok Pheap had earlier been involved in a joint committee set up to try to avoid fighting

in Banteay Meanchey, which effectively collapsed when CPP-allied forces moved in

to secure Poipet.

Fighting erupted in Poipet July 27, according to opposition newspaper editor Som

Virak, who fled to neighboring Aranyaprathet in Thailand. Forces loyal to General

Lay Vireak - the commander of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Div 12 and a former

Khmer Peoples' National Liberation Armed Forces anti-Vietnamese resistance chief

- fled to O'Baichoan, his former KPNLAF base about 20km northeast of Poipet.

Within days, O'Baichoan was captured, with about 360 Lay Vireak loyalists running

across the border into Thailand. Thai soldiers disarmed them and allowed them to

go through Thai territory to get back into Cambodia at O'Smach, Thai military sources

said. Vireak himself at some point slipped away to O'Smach.

Several thousand civilians also fled into Thailand to escape the Banteay Meanchey

fighting. A total of 3,369 Khmers were housed at a temporary refugee camp near Ban

Mak Mun, most of them being returned to the O'Baichoan area within several days.

Between 300-500 refugees who refused to go back to O'Baichoan - believed to be Funcinpec

soldiers or their families - were transported north and sent across the border at

O'Smach by the Thai military.

Several of Lay Vireak's former top comrades turned against him to help CPP secure

Poipet and O'Baichoan, according to Thai and Funcinpec military chiefs.

They included General Ko Chhean, a former KP resistance chief and deputy commander

of the RCAF 5th Military Region, and his chief of staff, Funcinpec-appointed General

Duong Sokhon. Another former KP chief, General So Chan Heng, commander of RCAF Div

7 based in Thmar Puok, effectively handed over his entire division to CPP control.

Earlier, Minister of Information Ieng Mouly - from the Buddhist Liberal Democratic

Party, which was born out of the KP armed forces - visited Banteay Meanchey. He addressed

a July 11 meeting of the joint committee of CPP, Funcinpec and former KP military

commanders, according to local sources.

In comments clearly directed at his former KP comrades, Mouly reportedly urged them

not to fight the CPP. In the 1980s, the KP had been fighting against the Vietnamese,

but now they would be fighting only Khmers, he reportedly told them.

"If you fight, you will be slaves to others. It is a question of maintaining

what you've got. Do you want to go back to the jungle?" one source quoted Mouly

as saying.

Recalling his time as a former KP logistician, Mouly is said to have reminded his

former colleagues of the difficulties in getting supplies. At one point, he recounted

a battle in the 1980s when KP troops had to retreat after failing to get a delivery

of anti-tank mines from the Thais on time.

As Nhek Bun Chhay and Lay Vireak, supported by Funcin-pec generals Khan Savoeun and

Serey Kosal, try to organize an effective resistance at O'Smach, military observers

say the issue of Thai support for them is again likely to be important.

Bangkok officials have insisted that Thailand will not support the resistance, and

Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has made visible efforts to appease Hun

Sen in the past three weeks. Saying that Hun Sen's attack on Funcinpec in Phnom Penh

was not a coup d'état, Chavalit has publicly implied that he believes Ranariddh

should return to Cambodia. Thailand also acceded to Phnom Penh's request that it

not grant any more visas to fleeing political opposition figures, many of whom remain

in Bangkok.

Nhek Bun Chhay, in an Aug 8 interview, accused Thailand of sending Funcinpec military

officers back to Cambodia to face execution. On a local level, however, Bun Chhay

is widely rumored to have received some assistance from the Thai military in Surin

province, which borders O'Smach.



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