Were the gun battles of November 24 a sincere but fruitless attempt by rebels to
topple the Cambodian Government? Or a calculated piece of political theater
designed to facilitate a Government crackdown on dissidents? The Post puts
together the pieces and says, 'You decide'.
Military police escort suspected 'CFF' insurgents to prison for interrogation
on November 24
By Stephen O'Connell and
ACCOUNTS of the November 24 gun battles along Pochentong
Boulevard and at the E70 military barracks in Dangkau District suggest the
attack by the so-called Cambodia Freedom Fighters (CFF) was an amateurish effort
launched by an untrained, ill-equipped force duped into believing they were
Setting the stage
Witnesses told the Post that eight "CFF"
gunmen moved into a small house beside the tracks several hundred meters to the
west of Phnom Penh railway station three days before the fighting. The house is
owned by a man named Ponleu, a seller of exotic wood products.
brother-in-law, Oum Channy - Deputy Security Chief of the railway station -
rented the house on behalf of Ponleu to a man five days before the gun battle.
A relative of Channy's told the Post the new tenant claimed to be a
construction labor contractor and that he had learned that the house was
available to rent from a friend that worked at the Ministry of National
Two days later about eight men moved into the house and told
neighbors that they had come from the provinces to work as construction laborers
A moto driver, Touch, 29, said that in the days before the attack he
watched the coming and goings of these men. "I felt uneasy about them because
they were newcomers," he said.
Neighbors told the Post the men looked
unkempt and dirty, but believed their story that they had come to Phnom Penh to
work as construction laborers.
On the evening of November 23, the eight men
were observed singing songs at a karaoke bar near their house.
A wounded survivor of the November 24 gun battle
"I and a
friend were inside the karaoke bar," 16-year-old Suor Rithy recalled. "It was
about 8:00pm when seven or eight of the men came in. Each of them sang only one
song, then the ones who finished singing left the shop and passed the microphone
to the next till only one was left. They sang only wedding and traditional
At about 1:00am on November 24 Touch, the moto driver, drove by
the strangers' house and saw armed men lurking outside.
"I parked my
motorbike and asked them if there was a problem," said Touch. "They said they
were going to arrest thieves. Three minutes later, I saw "Brother" [You] Seda [a
bodyguard of Co-Minister of the Interior You Hockry] riding his motorbike toward
the house. Then I heard the crash of his motorbike," said Touch.
36, told the Post that he had left work at about midnight on November 23 and was
returning to his nearby home after visiting a friend.
"I arrived at about
1:15am. Fifty meters away from my house I saw about 15 gunmen, with AK-47s and
B-40 launchers, standing in the path. I asked them what was happening. One of
them ordered me to hand over my gun and handcuffs. He then kicked my motorbike
"I was ordered to kneel. One of them cocked his weapon. Someone
said 'Tie him up then shoot and bury him,' but another said 'Let's take him to
the front.' They told me that they were Khmer Serei. When I heard this, I felt
that my life would come to an end and I screamed."
Seda's wife heard his
scream and tried to follow the gunmen as they left for the station, but they
threatened to shoot her.
Touch said four young men who came to
investigate the source of the ruckus were immediately pressed into service as
munitions bearers. "The gunmen ordered them to join them. They were given B-40
rockets and told 'We go to fight Yuon'."
Kim Nen, 22, was one of the four
unfortunate youths. "I ran to the scene, and suddenly I was held at gunpoint.
They ordered me to carry two B40 rockets and go forward to fight the Yuon. They
said we should go to our deaths together."
Nen watched as the armed men
forced 20 people to accompany them on their journey toward the railway station
before escaping behind a cement warehouse.
Moments before he made his
escape, Seda saw more gunmen leap over the wall and enter the railway yard. "One
them ordered his men to take the weapons and shoot at the TV3 station. Another
said they were Khmer Serei and were going to kill Yuon".
Oun Chan, 41, a
railway guard, watched as the gunmen took over the station at about
"First I saw more than twenty armed men walking from west along
the tracks. I had been sleeping near the guard house at the south entrance. I
was getting up and one of them came and pointed an AK-47 at me and said not to
Meas Samoeun, another security guard, woke when gunmen burst into
the room where he slept.
"They kicked one of my colleagues and punched
his head. I was very frightened. They then pointed a gun at me and demanded I go
with them and fight Yuon."
Sok Neardey, the railway station's Security
Chief, told the Post the gunmen took 14 AK-47 rifles and over 100 rounds of
ammunition from the station's weapons storeroom. He said the guards were unarmed
and could not resist the "CFF".
After they broke into the station's arms
storage locker they left yelling "Let's take our guns and go to fight Yuon,"
said Chan. Accompanying the gunmen was Chan's colleague, the Deputy Security
Chief of the station, Oum Channy.
"[Channy] walked at the front of the
group and had a walkie-talkie in his pocket," said Chan. "He carried an AK-47
balanced on his shoulder. As he passed by me, I asked 'Ny, what is happening?'
but he did not answer. His face looked blank. I believe that Ny was with the
A few hours later Channy lay dead on Pochentong Boulevard with a
gunshot wound to his leg and bearing other marks that suggest he was beaten to
Chan confirms Nen's account of the forced nature of the gunmen's
"recruitment", reporting that four or five cement warehouse workers were
likewise ordered at gunpoint to join them."
Railway station rumble
The first shooting around the train
station area occurred shortly after the group exited the railway yards from the
"They screamed that a police truck was coming and started
cocking their rifles," Chan said. "When they opened fire on the truck I
Chhean Soeun, a 34-year-old homeless woman, was sleeping on the
sidewalk opposite TV3 when she woke to see some 20 armed men approaching.
"They were in civilian clothes. One of them carried a B40 rocket on his
back. All of them carried AK-47s in positions ready for fighting. They screamed
'Move forward!' but then asked each other if they were in front of TV3.
"I thought that if they were real warriors, they would not yell like
"Then the shooting started. They sprayed bullets at the Total
security guard. They shot at TV3. Before leaving, they threw a hand grenade at
the Total station."
A nearby resident peeked through his fence as
shooting erupted outside his house.
"I saw more than 20 armed men walking
and running. They opened fire on seven policemen [from Khan Prampi Makara police
station who were driving down Pochentong in a truck] in front of TV3. The police
fired back, but then they were shot and wounded.
"The rebels moved
towards them, and the wounded police raised their hands and begged not to be
"Then the rebels headed west down [Pochentong], yelling. They
screamed in front of the Council of Ministers for officials to come
"They shot many rounds from AK-47s into the air. They acted like
Nhou Mao, a 45-year-old security guard,
witnessed the fighting around the Rural Development Ministry:
hiding inside the guard house. One bullet went through the guard house just
above where I was lying. I heard them talking through radios: 'Move foreword,
Move forward... Withdraw.'
"Some shouted 'the bullets are running out,
get us more.' They shot many rounds into the air before they withdrew," said
Attack on Battalion E70
As the fighting was taking place along Pochentong, another futile attack was
launched at E70, an RCAF base in Dangkau.
A soldier based at E70, who
does not want to be named, told the Post that about 6:00pm on the evening of
November 23 a drunk man stood outside the gate of the base and shouted "Heng
Samrin and Hun Sen have had a quarrel. Your base will be destroyed
The drunk man was arrested and questioned. Soldiers found on
his body an AK-47 magazine full of bullets.
"My commander asked all
soldiers to be alert, deploying us around the base after the spy [the drunk man]
At about 1:45am soldiers at E70 watched as a group of
10 "rebels" crawled towards the base through rice fields.
because we knew of their assault plan," said the soldier. "But before they
withdrew they launched five rockets into the base, damaging a barracks, a
motorcycle, and wounding five soldiers.
"One of [the attackers] was
killed. The clash lasted only a few minutes and then they fled across the rice
The day after
The following morning police made a
house-to-house search near the railway station. Touch the moto driver watched as
police discovered blood-stains on the steps of Ponleu's house.
officer ... knocked on the door. The officer entered the house and found a
wounded man hiding under a bed. He then ran out of the house and shouted for his
men. He shot two rounds of his AK-47, ordering everyone to get out of the
Touch says the men who were arrested left the house smiling -
even the wounded man whose clothes were soaked with blood. Four rockets and
seven AK-47s were found hidden by the house.
At about the same time
military police surrounded a house near E70 owned by Kon Somaly, a former member
of Prince Norodom Ranariddh's bodyguard unit.
Neighbors said the police
found several AK-47s dumped in the rice field behind Somaly's house. Like
Ponleu, Somaly was nowhere to be found. Both Ponleu's and Somaly's families said
the men had nothing to do with the "CFF."
Channy's widow can't account
for her husband's actions on the night he was killed.
But she's convinced
he was only wounded during the fighting and was later murdered by soldiers to
keep him silent.