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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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'
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
Finally after dropping down another steep slope and the APC
getting stuck once again, the convoy pulled up at a tiny village.
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
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
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
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
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.