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Casualties escalate around O'Smach

Casualties escalate around O'Smach

FIGHTING at O'Smach has flared up into some of the most costly since the conflict

began despite both sides saying they want a ceasefire.

Medical staff in Samrong - the main regional military base of government troops -

said more than 100 soldiers were killed between Jan 15 and Jan 21 and more than 50

seriously wounded.

A witness to the fighting said that the many of the dead were just left were they

fell. "[One soldier] said he could smell the bodies of the dead soldiers."

He said he was told by some government soldiers that they only bring back the bodies

of high ranking commanders.

Despite the fighting, the front line does not appear to have moved.

Officials on both sides of the fighting said they are waiting for a political solution.

However chances for a cease fire have fluctuated wildly in recent weeks.

Hun Sen has stepped back from his previous demands that the resistance effectively

surrender, offering a bilateral ceasefire if the rebels promise to reveal their positions

and a tally of their arms.

After initially hedging on the offer, Prince Norodom Ranariddh announced, through

mediator Sam Rainsy, that he would accept the deal, but it remained uncertain at

Post press time whether an agreement had been reached.

Rainsy says now a "channel of communication between Rana-riddh's representatives

and Hun Sen's representatives" must be opened so that they can share the necessary

information on their positions and the sizes of their weapons caches.

As for the fighting, which flared on Jan 15 and peaked on Jan 18 and 19 in some of

the most intense exchanges of fire yet, it has reportedly slowed to a virtual standstill,

but it remains unclear exactly why.

"I think it was because of the Thais. I think they fired many rockets at

Hun Sen's troops, injuring many of them," said one man who recently returned

from O'Smach.

Thai forces regularly retaliate when government fire hits Thai soil. "[Hun Sen's

loyalists] were shooting very far beyond O'Smach hill. They didn't seem to care if

they were hitting the Thai side because they think the Khmer Rouge and the resistance

are also on Thai territory," he said.

The role of the Thais is thought by many to be a determining factor in seeking a

lasting resolution to the fighting, because of Thailand's historic support for the

resistance and the Thai leader-ship's willingness to talk to both sides.

Hun Sen last week accepted an invitation to talks with Thai Prime Minister Chuan

Leekpai - who has also announced that he might meet Prince Ranariddh - at an as-yet-to-be

set date.

A Thai government official said it was premature to speculate over Bangkok playing

a mediating role in the Cambodian conflict.

"There are further steps that need to be taken before we can talk about any

mediation," the Thai official said.

But Sam Rainsy expressed hope that Thailand could push a ceasefire forward.

"Thailand can play a positive role in bringing about a ceasefire... We share

a long, common border," he said.

"Hun Sen cannot afford to be Thailand's enemy."

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