TUMNUB TANES position, Phnom Vour - The three western hostages were evacuated safely by the Khmer Rouge to a cave as the Royal Government's armed forces launched their first major offensive to capture the guerrillas' Phnom Vour (Vine Mountain) base, according to interviews with government colonels and a captured KR soldier.
Captured KR soldier Touch Bun, said in an interview with the Post on Oct 1: "He [ KR General Paet] moved the three [hostages] immediately as he received information from his soldiers on the day as the government army launched a major attack on Sept 24."
Bun said: "Fighting erupted everywhere around Phnom Vour on Saturday morning [ Sept 24]. Gen Paet gave an order to evacuate the hostages quickly for their own safety to a cave about 1.5 km north of the mountain base.
"The three hostages are alive and they have been treated well... they have got enough food ... three meals per day.. they sleep at night under mosquito nets in separate beds with ten bodyguards."
"Gen Paet ordered them [the bodyguards] not to handcuff them [the hostages] anymore... but they [hostages] have been getting thinner and thinner from day to day," Bun said.
He added that the three hostages have eaten a little food but sometimes they only drank water.
"I don't know why they eat so little... perhaps they have gotten home-sick or they don't like the food," Bun said.
Bun said one of the three western hostages had been wounded from previous shelling by the Royal army.
He said Gen Paet always worries about the security and lives of the three hostages. "In every meeting Gen Paet always told custodians to feed them well.
"Gen Paet doesn't want them [the hostages] to die...he said they are very important persons for demanding exchanges."
Bun quoted Gen Paet as saying to KR soldiers that the release of the three western hostages was subject to on-going discussions between the Royal Government and the Democractic Kampuchea Party[ KR].
"Gen Paet said he will release the three as long as the Royal Government of Cambodia accepts any of the proposals put forward by his leader Khieu Samphan," Bun said.
In a separate interview with the Post on Sept 30, Chief of Staff for Regiment 71 Colonel Sok Siem described how and why the Royal Army launched the major offensive on the mountain base.
He said: "On Sept 24 Special Forces units surrounding Phnom Vour reached the sprawling village base where the hostages were being held. The Special Forces launched a heavy attack on the base, the assault took place everywhere around the mountain for 105 minutes."
He said over 4,000 government soldiers including policemen were taking part in the continuing assault. "We did this in accordance with an order from the chief of general staff... It is the first major offensive on the base to pressure the KR guerrillas on the mountain to defect to us."
Col Siem said the government army, supported by APCs and truck-mounted multiple-rocket launchers, advanced six km on the morning of Sept 24, but some units were repulsed by some 300 KR guerrillas.
The colonel said: "The Khmer Rouge soldiers energized on the mountain and fought very bravely against us and some of our units were forced to retreat to the bottom of the hill after the 105 minutes of fighting.
"But my unit [Regiment 71] did not withdraw...my soldiers are taking control of the Khmer Rouge Chamka Bey [Farm 3] position, [5 km south of the Phnom Vour where the hostages were being held]," Col Siem said.
The Colonel could not say whether the government plan to capture Phnom Vour would succeed. He said: "It's a complicated area....mines and spear pit traps are planted around the base in large thick forest."
The Khmer Rouge have been holding the three Westerners, Briton Mark Slater, 28, Jean-Michel Braquet, 27, from France, and Australian David Wilson, 29, along with three ethnic Vietnamese and an unknown number of Cambodians since July 26 when they were seized in a train ambush in which 13 people were killed.
In early August Khmer Rouge clandestine radio broadcast that the three hostages would be released if Western countries stopped giving military assistance to the Royal government.
Then on Sept 3 Khmer Rouge nominal leader Khieu Samphan requested His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk to ask the Royal government to consider annulling the bill outlawing the rebel group and allowing them to reopen their compound in Phnom Penh in exchange for the hostages' release.
But the request was turned down by the Royal Government and the National Assembly, according to a letter obtained by the Post and signed by the Co-Premiers Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen.
Negotiations between the two groups reportedly broke down in late August after RCAF troops surrounded the guerrilla mountain base and began shelling their positions in an attempt to starve them out and force them to defect to the government.
Col Siem said that on Sept 14 a band of about 100 KR guerrillas broke the siege of his soldiers and gained fresh supplies after occupying for several hours one of the government positions, Tumnub Tanes, 7 km south of Phnom Vour.
Lieutenant Colonel Lay Dara Vong, information officer for Division 5, in an interview with the Post on Oct 1, said negotiations for the release of the three hostages had resumed on Sept 21.