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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - War spills over border; O'Smach stalemated

War spills over border; O'Smach stalemated

THE month-long battle for the royalist enclave of O'Smach has descended into a shaky

stalemate, with neither side appearing in full control of the abandoned, landmine-strewn

border town.

CPP-aligned troops won a victory of sorts, all but capturing the town after resistance

forces led by General Nhek Bun Chhay partially withdrew late last month.

But - harried by artillery fire from resistance posts on nearby hilltops and hindered

by harsh terrain studded with mines - the advancing troops had, at Post press time,

yet to secure all of the area.

"Hun Sen can occupy O'Smach, but he can't live there. We have put mines everywhere

- all along the border, there are mines, in the forest, there are mines," said

one Funcinpec official at the border last week.

But he acknowledged that the resistance was likely to lose what was a war of attrition:

"Even if Hun Sen sends 10 to 15 people to lose their legs, to lose their lives,

every day, he will replace them with more.

"We can resist for some time, maybe a month, but if Hun Sen sends people forward

every day, they will take O'Smach. Maybe we will have to change our tactics, to retreat

and launch hit-and-run attacks."

In Phnom Penh, government officials claimed that all of O'Smach was theirs for the

taking. They said their forces were moving slowly forward, clearing mines as they

went, to secure the town.

"I'm in O'Smach - how can they claim to have captured it?" replied one

resistance official by telephone Sept 8. He said that CPP forces were withdrawing

from the northern part of O'Smach, under pressure from counter-attacks to cut off

their supply lines and circle round behind them.

Situated at the Cambodian-Thai border in northern Siem Reap province, O'Smach was

one of the last sanctuaries and beacons of hope for the anti-Hun Sen resistance.

Resistance forces are holding crucial positions on a hill close to the border just

west of O'Smach - where artillery pieces under the control of General Khan Savoeun,

a key Nhek Bun Chhay ally, are said to be - and on two hills to the east and southeast.

From there, they can fire upon on CPP forces moving up muddy, mined Route 68, which

winds up between the hills to the O'Smach border point.

Earlier, the resistance's slipping grip on the O'Smach town itself became apparent

when about 50 guerrillas abandoned their last position near the border checkpoint

Aug 24. They were seen removing a photo of King Sihanouk from the town's main pavilion

and leaving toward the east on an armored vehicle around sunset.

A brief lull in fighting ended the next day when bursts of artillery and mortar fire

were heard coming from resistance positions on surrounding hills, prompting two days

of exchanges with CPP troops on Rt 68.

On Aug 27, a stray shell hit a fortified Thai checkpoint just across the border,

killing one Thai soldier and injuring two others. Thailand, which had warned the

fighting factions to keep the fight within Cambodia, responded strongly.

Witnesses said a Thai general and his men pored over maps of the O'Smach area and

- based on radio reports from their military spotters who said the offending shell

came from a CPP base at Kong Kriel, south of O'Smach - ordered 14 artillery rounds

fired back. At least three CPP soldiers including a commander were believed killed

in the retaliatory strike, Thai sources said.

Thailand formally complained about the stray shell, and Phnom Penh publicly apologized.

On Sept 1, a stray bullet wounded a Thai soldier and the next day, after several

shells struck Thai soil, Thailand responded with two artillery shells and two mortar

bombs.

A call by returning King Norodom Sihanouk for a cease-fire was ignored, but Thai

and Funcinpec officials said the previously intense artillery barrages have lessened

to sporadic shelling in recent days.

Casualty figures in the struggle for O'Smach are unconfirmed, but malaria appears

to have claimed more victims than shells or mines.

Funcinpec officials claimed up to 2,000 CPP dead and wounded in recent weeks; with

only several dozen casualties on the resistance side. A handful of Funcinpec casualties

have been permitted across the border to be taken to Thai hospitals in the past fortnight,

witnesses say.

The military hospital in Samrong, the CPP-held main town 40km south of O'Smach, last

month treated 210 patients and sent another 190 to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh hospitals,

according to official figures. Some civilians are included among the figures. For

both soldiers and civilians, malaria took the heaviest toll.

If completely routed from O'Smach, the resistance forces are likely to fall back

to Tatum, on isolated highland territory about 25km east of O'Smach. Several large

fortified bunkers are at Tatum, a former Sihanoukist army base for the anti-Vietnamese

resistance in the 1980s. Work is underway to prepare Tatum, not only for soldiers

but for civilians who do not want to live in Hun Sen-controlled areas or in Thailand,

resistance officials said.

The other option for resistance fighters would be to move to the Khmer Rouge stronghold

of Anlong Veng, about 60km east of O'Smach.

An unconfirmed number of Anlong Veng guerrillas - between 600 and 1,000, according

to CPP and resistance officials' estimates - are supporting Nhek Bun Chhay's soldiers.

KR divisional commander Duol Sareoun is helping to lead their operations, resistance

sources say.

Ousted Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh has denied any alliance with the

KR, saying that the guerrillas at O'Smach are "defectors".

The KR are believed to be providing landmines and booby traps for the resistance,

but it is unclear whether they are giving other weapons and ammunition. Funcinpec

officials say their troops are using munitions caches buried along the border in

the early 1990s, and stockpiles moved to O'Smach several months ago by General Khan

Savoeun.

There are indications that the resistance may be looking toward timber as a way to

fund its cause.

Thai newspaper The Nation reported Sept 3 that KR military chief Ta Mok had signed

to export processed wood in the form of railway tracks to Thai businessmen. One of

the KR's motives in helping to protect O'Smach was to ensure the wood could be transported

to Thailand, the newspaper suggested.

Meanwhile, a Funcinpec official returning from O'Smach was seen showing wood samples

to businessmen at a hotel in Thailand's Surin province recently.

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