Soviet Pilots Gun Shy After First Chopper Shot Down
SIEM REAP - The Khmer Rouge last week shot down and looted an UNTAC helicopter from
which a Russian flight crew had to be rescued in the most hair-raising action seen
yet by U.N. forces in Cambodia.
It was the first time an UNTAC helicopter had been shot down and only the second
time that the Soviet-made helicopters have been hit by machine gun fire in Cambodia,
suggesting a possible escalation of this harassment as a tactic, according to Skylink
Helicopter Group Captain Rafael Zakirov.
As a result of the Nov. 5 incident in Siem Reap province-the most serious of a long
series of pot-shots taken at UNTAC helicopters-UNTAC Air Operations have issued new
regulations requiring prior assurances for ground security before landings, liaising
with the Khmer Rouge before flying over territory they control, and higher minimum
It also emphasizes the customary discretion granted a pilot to "terminate the
mission and return [to base] if he deems there is a safety problem."
UNTAC officers in the field are concerned that the Russian pilots have been so rattled
that they will now refuse to travel to many areas, severely constraining mobility
and impairing UNTAC's overall effectiveness.
An appeal has been filed from the field to Phnom Penh for reconsideration of the
According to a Phnom Penh Post reconstruction of events, this is what happened: A
routine trip transporting several members of the Pakistani army battalion back to
their Sector III headquarters base in Samrong at a height of 1100 meters was abruptly
interrupted at 11:20 a.m. when automatic weapons fire hit the left engine oil tank,
spewing hot oil into the chopper's rear cabin.
The crew decided to immediately make an emergency landing, which had to be managed
without one engine. The left engine was shut off after smoke suggested it had caught
fire. The Mi-17 helicopter was still being fired upon and was hit three times as
it dropped into a forested swamp. Before landing deep in muck, a tree branch gashed
a hole in a fuel tank that quickly spread a lethal pool around the downed chopper.
The helicopter came down in Phum Damrai Slap, about 30 kilometers northwest of Siem
Reap, the provincial capital.
"We heard firing first from far away and then closer and we knew they would
be coming to surround us in 10 or 15 minutes," recounted Sector 3 Commander
Tariq Mahmud, who was among those aboard the downed helicopter.
Another helicopter which happened to be in the area was called in, lifting out everyone
but the three-man Russian flight crew, who had orders to remain with their craft
until technicians traveling in a third helicopter could reach them for repairs.
But once the second helicopter was in the air, the firing resumed. "At that
point I ordered the second helicopter to return and pick up the crew," recounted
Zakirov, who was in the third helicopter at the time.
"That's when the real cinema started," recalled Russian Army Maj. Roustam
Saliakhov, 30, who played a leading role rescuing his compatriots in a hail of rifle
fire. "We were hovering and they were running towards us-in the swamp up to
here," the Afghanistan veteran said, pointing to his upper thigh.
"They were screaming and we were yelling 'come on come on'-the last one grabbed
the ladder and we pulled him in at an altitude of about 10 meters from the ground
as we took off."
This was all under rifle fire from a distance of about 50 meters. In retrospect,
Saliakhov said, "It was probably just meant to harass us but at the time we
didn't know that. It was pretty real for us."
In the meantime, the Bangladeshi battalion had rounded up all four faction military
liaison officers in Siem Reap for a meeting at Sector 2 headquarters. At the time
Khmer Rouge Brig. Gen. Yim Phana of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK)
said it was unlikely that his forces were responsible and said they certainly were
not trying to bring down the second helicopter.
"If it was NADK and we wanted to shoot it down, the helicopter would never have
come back to Siem Reap," he told the Post through an interpreter.
The waning afternoon hours were spent trying to establish radio contact with high-level
Khmer Rouge authorities in Pailin to see if security could be assured for a mission
to retrieve the helicopter that day.
A mission mounted the following morning included the NADK official, a military liaison
officer from forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh, U.N. military observers, Bangladeshi
officers and six armed soldiers.
First the NADK official was dropped out for a 10-minute private consultation before
he waved in the helicopter. The mission seeking to retrieve the damaged helicopter
was in for a slight surprise.
The downed "bird" had been ravaged during the night, stripped of everything
from seats and parachutes to expensive navigational equipment. Diesel tanks had been
axed and the windows mashed for good measure. Practically the only thing spared were
two fuel tanks on top of the craft which allowed the helicopter to be flown out later
"They had to fly back without any navigational aids, just looking out the window
at the road below," said a Russian officer.
The craft was flown to Phnom Penh for repairs. Afterwards, UNTAC officers in Siem
Reap took the opportunity to remind the factions they would be held financially responsible
for all additional costs they cause UNTAC. It remains unclear exactly how the factions
can be held accountable.
The Khmer Rouge insist that their forces, which have two units in the area near where
the firing on the helicopter first began, were not responsible. They said locals,
many of whom are armed, were probably frightened and fired on the helicopter. UNTAC
officials say this is implausible, if only because to hit a helicopter at its original
flight altitude would have probably required an anti-aircraft machine gun.
Recently the NADK commander in the western part of Sector II issued a warning that
UNTAC should be sure to ask permission before entering their area.
Apparently to reinforce this there have been several recent incidents of U.N. military
observers coming under shelling soon after arriving in villagers to investigate ceasefire
violations allegedly committed by NADK forces.
A planned follow-up investigation by U.N. military observers the on the Nov. 5 incident
was obstructed when the NADK said that security could not be assured because of an
alleged counterattack by Phnom Penh forces.
"That is bullshit," responded a U.N. military observer. "This place
is deep in NADK territory and [Phnom Penh forces] are not strong enough to attack
there. They just want to sanitize the place before we get there."
The mission was jettisoned anyway because of the new order issued to the Russian
pilots, who were now refusing to travel anywhere off main routes.
"We will land only after the Sector Commander can assure security," said
The first time UNTAC helicopters were hit by machine gun fire was in July, when a
co-pilot was injured in the elbow. This occurred in Sector III over territory believed
to be controlled by NADK.
Most potshots taken at U.N. helicopters are thought to be NADK mischief. But Sector
II UNTAC military sources say they believe other instances are the work of State
of Cambodia forces, because of where they occur.