Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt armor stutters, stalls at the front

Govt armor stutters, stalls at the front

Govt armor stutters, stalls at the front

B

ATTAMBANG - The dilapidated Soviet-built armored personnel carrier drove down

off Route 10 to bypass a bridge which was too narrow for it to cross.

It

plunged down the embankment and tried to pull up the steep slope on the other

side. But the driver never gave it enough gas and the lumbering eight-wheeled

vehicle fell backwards into the dry stream bed to the grins and cheers of the 20

or so soldiers hanging on the sides along with this correspondent.

It

took the exhortations of General Serei Kosal, first vice governor of Battambang,

another four attempts and the accidental demolition of a fence behind us before

the vehicle finally made it back onto the road. It would have made a sitting

target if the foul-up had been anywhere near the Khmer Rouge, the original

owners of the vehicle.

Later we arrived at the front line, that day May 8

it was at Bong Ampil, around 35 km out of Battambang along Route 10. We pulled

up beside three T-54 tanks as the rain started.

In the shelter of a hut,

the extremely affable Gen Kosal drew a map in the dirt with his foot. A force of

around 300 KR was holed up in hills beside Highway 10, he said, 6 km in front of

the wrecked settlement of Sdau. Backed by artillery and perhaps four tanks the

guerrillas were holding up the government's counterattack after the offensive on

Battambang

"We have a new plan. We are going to circle round the sides

today and come at them from the rear tomorrow," said Gen Kosal, a Funcinpec

MP.

He put government troop strength at over 1,000 but said many had to

stay back to defend settlements along the highway. Outside an officer was

preparing to go to war with a map under one arm, a bottle of cognac under the

other and a bottle of brandy poking out of a hip pocket.

Diminutive Gen

Kosal then introduced Kee Heung, a brave lady who runs a karaoke shop in

Battambang town, who came right up to the front line to cook for the soldiers.

She was part of a great community spirit in Battambang, he said, in which

everyone was prepared to support the army's efforts to keep the KR at bay.

After preparing her meals they were loaded on the APC. In all around 150

soldiers climbed on the three tanks and the APC, some hastily finishing cans of

Tiger beer.

Ms Heung also climbed on the APC as the convoy headed back

down the potholed highway and then followed dirt tracks to execute the plan to

encircle the KR.

During several of hours of crashing through the

countryside demolishing small trees and the gruff Deputy Interior Minister

General Khann Savoeun barking orders from astride the gun barrel of a tank, it

became apparent that things weren't going quite as intended.

A tank

slewed off on one side after slipping a track, another broke down and had to be

bump started by backing up another T-54 behind it. And several times the APC got

stuck in the mud or slipped back down inclines. During an attempt to get over

the slope it nearly backed into a tank's gun barrel, much to the soldiers'

amusement.

During the many stoppages, including a couple of reports of

what sounded like gunfire, there was no attempt by the troops to get off the

tanks and take up defensive positions for what must have been a tempting target

for any roving band of guerrillas behind government lines.

More of a

preoccupation for the soldiers was scoffing down rations of two-minute noodles

raw, their hunger obviously being such that they couldn't wait for Ms Heung's

cuisine.

Finally after dropping down another steep slope and the APC

getting stuck once again, the convoy pulled up at a tiny village.

After a

break we mystifying headed off down another track away from the frontline after

jettisoning our supplies of two-minute noodles. Perhaps the villagers they were

tossed down to would be able to appreciate their full flavor by boiling them

up.

The retreat of the rear tank, on which this correspondent and the

deputy interior minister were traveling, came to a grinding halt when it

overheated, sending clouds of steam and boiling water pouring out of the rear.

Several soldiers sitting at the back cried out in pain, though fortunately they

were only slightly scalded.

Another reporter later told of seeing a

soldier in a Battambang hospital covered in burns after boiling water from a

tank gushed over him.

After another 20-minute delay, fortunately there

was enough cold water on hand to get the monster moving again. We caught up with

the rest of the convoy at what turned out to be the village of Chay Meanchey,

via a number of farmers' fields.

There the APC was embarrassingly stuck

yet again, this time on a small ridge separating two fields. Neither backwards

nor forwards at maximum revs would shift it but there was no move from the tank

drivers to tow it. Mind you the tank directly in front was in no position to

help at that moment - it too had overheated and was pouring out clouds of smoke.

Finally the APC freed itself and everybody jumped down. Most would spend

the night in the village and eat Ms Heung's goodies.

A grinning and

extremely frank Gen Kosal explained what had happened. He said: "We thought we

knew a road round, but we got lost. When we spoke to the people in the village

they told us we had driven onto a minefield, so we had to come back." So much

for the cunning plan.

Later, back at the Victory Hotel in Battambang,

which serves as the general's headquarters and billet, he said that despite the

setback he was confident the KR would be pushed back. He even said it was

possible that the guerrillas' home town Pailin could be recaptured despite the

looming rainy season, which traditionally bogs down the government

army.

Using his fingers to count, he put the number of KR killed in the

advance on Battambang and their subsequent retreat at just 11, with the capture

of two Chinese T-58 tanks and the destruction of another. Government deaths

during the week's fighting were put at three, with up to 30 wounded. The general

said three or four civilians were killed.

Clearly, if the general's

figures were accurate and there was no reason to doubt them, a lot of ground had

been given and taken by both sides for a minimal loss of life, but a maximum

amount of disruption and destruction to villages in the path of the

fighting.

An exhausted Gen Kosal said: "I don't think about my own

security, only about the security of my people. I want them to live in this

province with pleasure, peace and freedom and to have a similar lifestyle to

Thai people."

Two days later a soldier coming back from the frontline

said a KR force of 300 had attacked Route 10 from three sides and government

troops had retreated 15 km back to Snoeng, with the loss of two men. Plans to

push the guerrillas back again suffered a blow.

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