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.
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
Several thousand houses and buildings were razed, creating a
new wave of homeless people, as KR guerrillas swept through dozens of
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.
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
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.
deputy governor of Banan, said a KR general had three days earlier contacted
provincial officials to offer a mass defection of guerrillas.
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.
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
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
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
He said he was "surprised they [the KR] would target the
clinic and even more surprised they would get this close to Battambang
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.
said it was harder to protect isolated provincial settlements.
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
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
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