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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - "Vengeance on a scale not seen in a long time"

"Vengeance on a scale not seen in a long time"

In the Khmer Rouge's first major dry-season offensive, areas of Battambang

province has come under repeated attack in the past fortnight. Ros Sokhet and

Darren Whiteside traveled around the most heavily battered areas.

THE

Khmer Rouge choose January 15, the last day of the government's amnesty offer to

the rebels, to launch a series of vicious scorched-earth attacks in Battambang

province.

Several thousand houses and buildings were razed, creating a

new wave of homeless people, as KR guerrillas swept through dozens of

villages.

One foreign relief worker who ventured into villages just south

of Bavel town - scene of some of the most destructive raids - described it as "a

vengeance on a scale not seen in a long time".

The KR reportedly came

within 5km of Battambang town itself, firing rockets that exploded near the

airport, but were pushed back by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces troops.

As

the Post went to press, the extent of the KR's grip on surrounding areas was

unclear but Battambang officials were adamant the town itself was not under

threat.

The KR assaults began when about 400 guerrillas - apparently

under the guise of being potential defectors to the RCAF - stormed five communes

in Banan district about 28km south of the provincial capital.

Sou Seng,

deputy governor of Banan, said a KR general had three days earlier contacted

provincial officials to offer a mass defection of guerrillas.

"When we

heard we were very happy," Seng said. "We prepared more than 100 troops to wait

for them for three days to defect."

The guerrillas came at dawn on Jan

15, but not peacefully. They attacked communes near Toul Thnung, where the RCAF

troops were waiting.

With the outnumbered army troops unable to defend

the area, the KR moved on to Banan town 5km away, from where they set up mortars

to fire in the direction of the Battambang provincial capital.

Seng said

the KR set out for Battambang but were pushed back to Toul Thnung by RCAF troops

supported by a helicopter gunship and a truck-mounted multiple rocket

launcher.

Meanwhile, the KR also launched attacks in Bavel district, 39km

northwest of the Battambang capital.

Other destruction was reported in

communes 15km south of Battambang, and others 16km to the

southwest.

Foreign military observers say that at one stage some KR were

within 5km of Battambang town. Rockets were fired into its outskirts but little

damage was caused.

In the town itself, government officials and even

troops were at one stage seen cleaning up the streets and whitewashing walls and

tree trunks in preparation for a visit there by the King, while just kilometers

away Khmers were fleeing burning villages.

According to aid agency

figures, some 2,400 houses were destroyed and more than 40,000 people made

homeless around the province within 10 days.

NGOs and United Nations

agencies in Battambang town were staying put, though several are understood to

have considered evacuating.

The security problems prevented many aid

workers from venturing out of the town.

UNHCR field officer Andy

Pendelton said many parts of the province were "no-go" areas, but the situation

could easily change rapidly.

David Strong of CAMA Services visited the

charred remains of a clinic the NGO had built in a commune 15km south of

Battambang.

He said he was "surprised they [the KR] would target the

clinic and even more surprised they would get this close to Battambang

city".

Deputy Battambang governor Nam Tum was adamant that the KR could

not take the provincial capital.

"If the Khmer Rouge want to take

Battambang it would take them at least 60 years," he declared.

But he

said it was harder to protect isolated provincial settlements.

"As soon

as we move our troops away from a village the Khmer Rouge come in and burn it

down. Even if there is a village militia in place, they're not afraid."

Nam Tum defended the government and RCAF's handling of the

situation.

He said attempts to encourage KR defections in Battambang over

recent months had failed for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the closeness

of the rebel stronghold of Pailin.

KR in the province were not as poor

and badly equipped as many of their comrades in other areas, and had been

specifically chosen "to protect Pailin...this is why they will not

defect".

He downplayed suggestions that RCAF troops might try to take

Pailin in the near future.

However, he said: "The government will take it

back slowly. Step by step."

He said one concern that, if attacked, KR in

Pailin could simply flee across the border to Thailand.

He also mentioned

that Thailand still posses a problem for the RCAF's plan to take Pailin. "Even

though the Khmer Rouge are not strong they can still go into Thailand when

threatened."

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