BATTAMBANG - Royal Government troops were this week fighting to stave off a
large-scale offensive by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who are even threatening to
take second city Battambang.
The fighting, the heaviest since 1989 when
Vietnamese forces withdrew, caused a trail of human misery. An estimated 40,000
forced to flee their homes along Route 10 between Battambang and the guerrillas
base at Pailin.
Ominously for Cambodia's efforts to rehabilitate itself
after years of warfare, most foreign aid workers and expatriates left Battambang
in two large convoys on May 2 and 3.
The mood in Battambang itself was
tense as the Post went to press, with the frontline some 23 km to the west of
"Until today I thought the Khmer Rouge would never try to take
Battambang and now I think they just might do it," said a close observer of the
military situation in Battambang the night of May 2 as a shell boomed from the
government defensive line less than 10 km away.
Another analyst noted:
"The Khmer Rouge don't have a lot of troops," noted another analyst, "but they
certainly know how to use them effectively."
The offensive is another
grave blow to the Royal Government. It has already been severely embarrassed by
the kidnapping of four foreign nationals and two major military debacles, in
which the KR bases of Anlong Veng and Pailin were captured amid huge fanfare,
only to be quickly lost again.
The new gains by the KR also put them in
the driving seat should they finally opt to talk peace (see accompanying story).
"Now that the Khmer Rouge are balking at peace talks it seems they are
determined to destabilize the coalition government and prevent foreign
investment in the country," said another observer.
"It's easy for the
Khmer Rouge to make guerrilla attacks, impossible for the government to
anticipate all their moves."
Seng Vanna, the one-armed and one-eyed commander of the Military Region 5
which covers Battambang said 2,000 reinforcements had arrived on May 2 from
Region 4, Siem Reap province. But he added that the government side was
dangerously short on ammunition and was relying on one warehouse in the town for
Using classic guerrilla tactics the KR have advanced up Route
10 and launched sporadic attacks in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey. No casualty
figures had been released by the government at press time.
between Sisophon and Poipet has become a no-go area to all traffic except
foreign NGO vehicles whose drivers are willing to brave a potential Khmer Rouge
attack in the five to six km stretch between Poipet and Nimit.
percent of the people of Poipet have left," said General Hun Sothera, commanding
the troops stationed at nearby Nimit who are charged with defending the border
market town. As of May 3 it was still in government hands, several independent
Bantey Meanchey provincial governor Doung Kaem estimated
that between 1-2,000 KR have been taking part in the attacks in Bantey Meanchey.
Some government soldiers spoke of the KR deploying special squads of
mercenary troops, distinguished by their inability to speak Khmer and their
hooped earrings. Some said they were hilltribesmen, others said they were from
Burma or Thailand, all thought they were fighting while high on drugs.
Battambang the effects of the offensive quickly became felt with the imposition
of a curfew outside the hours of 8 am and 5pm and food prices rising by 20
percent. Some food products from Thailand doubled in price.
April, the Khmer Rouge regained their Phum Chat base on the Thai border and
moved troops into several other villages within 30 km of Thmar Pouk.
convoys composed of over 70 NGO and UN vehicles and nearly 200 aid staff left
the provincial capitol for Phnom Penh on Monday and Tuesday as fighting reached
out to encompass Snoeg and the borders of Phum Krapov. Local residents fear the
city will be dogged by fighting for months to come.
"Most of us are
development agencies, not relief," said a member of one convoy, which left
Tuesday as unconfirmed reports circulated in the town that a government
counterattack on the Khmer Rouge's southern flank seemed to have stemmed the
"We can't go out to the villages to work because of security
concerns. Most of us don't think anything will happen in Battambang. But just in
case, it's better to be safe." Many of those who left believed they would be
able to return within a week, but others were not so optimistic.
American and Australian embassies have appointed local representatives to
coordinate security for each country's nationals, attempting to make definitive
lists of names and location in case of evacuation.
The Australian Embassy
was advising nationals not to travel to Battambang or even Siem Reap.