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Fischback gets the Route 4 hiccups

Fischback gets the Route 4 hiccups

T he multi-million dollar repair of Route 4 from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville has been delayed by security scares and bureaucratic problems.

American firm Fischbach International, the $23 million contractor for the United States-funded project, hopes the work can begin soon after delays of nearly two months.

Among the reasons for the hold up have been the fatal shooting of a Thai road worker and a Cambodian general's reported demand for a bribe to ensure the safety of others.

Problems with obtaining customs clearance for road-building equipment being imported for the job have also contributed to the delays.

Sources say relations between the Cambodian government and Fischbach, USAID (the US government agency funding the project) and the US Embassy have been strained over the affair.

The Americans have sought guarantees of protection for workers on the road, and the government has pledged heavier security, in high-level correspondence between the two sides.

Complaints were made - but apparently later withdrawn - over the reported bribery attempt and about uniformed gunmen allegedly robbing roading workers.

Among the security measures now agreed upon, according to sources, is a 300-strong army force to protect the project's staff.

The extensive rebuilding work - cited as a priority in the government's plans to improve Sihanoukville business and tourism services - was to have started in early November after preliminary survey work began in September.

On November 6, a Thai driver working for a Fischbach sub-contractor was shot and killed while traveling in a truck convey carrying equipment from Sihanoukville.

The shooting was blamed on rogue Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) soldiers manning a toll checkpoint and one of them was apprehended. Whether he has been charged is unclear.

Fischbach project manager Don Noble said the killing - which he believed was a random, isolated incident - prompted USAID to seek assurances from the government about security.

"Our contract [with USAID] says the Government of Cambodia supplies security...we wanted security on that road," he said.

Diplomatic and government sources say the US Embassy also wrote to the government after receiving a report from Fischbach of an approach by a Kompong Speu army general demanding money to guarantee the safety of project staff.

Mr Noble said he had no knowledge of that, but sources say the embassy - in an exchange of letters discussed by Cambodia's Cabinet - laid a complaint but later effectively withdrew it.

Mr Noble did confirm, on another occasion, he had complained about an attack by uniformed men on a group of Thai subcontractors in a house. But, upon investigation, the incident was found not to have occured, he said.

He disputed comments by provincial officials that some local Khmers were angry at the involvement of Fischbach's main sub-contractor, Thai firm Ital-Thai Development Copra, in the roadworks.

Thai workers did not dominate the project, he said. When the main work begins 350 of the total 500 staff would be Cambodians, he said.

One security measure understood to have been proposed is the pairing of Cambodian co-drivers with all Thai drivers to ensure there are no communication misunderstandings with local Khmers.

The RCAF, meanwhile, has said it is planning military operations against Khmer Rouge strongholds in the southern provinces which Route 4 runs through, to help provide security for the road project.

The Cambodian Mine Action Center has been hired as a sub-contractor to clear mines and unexploded bombs from the road.

Meanwhile, Mr Noble said delays to the project had been exacerbated by Fischbach having problems getting roadbuilding equipment into the country from Thailand, Singapore and the United States.

It is understood that the matter relates to the Cambodian bureaucracy's slowness in giving clearance for the equipment.

Mr Noble said he was confident both the security and equipment problems had been resolved, and work could begin soon.

Whether the project could be completed by its April 1996 scheduled finish would depend on the weather, he said.

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