T HE Khmer Rouge have suffered two body-blows in the past nine days.
On Dec 21 in Kampot, rebel General Nuon Paet and his forces were routed after a two-week battle and their key southern base of Koh Sla overrun, claim Royal army chiefs.
Just five days later in Siem Reap, 275 guerrillas from the rebel division 912 - a fighting unit responsible for military action in five of the province's largest districts - defected en masse with weapons. More are expected to follow.
In both cases, Royal army commanders are claiming that the Khmer Rouge are no longer capable of effective military operations in their provinces.
"Kampot is a peaceful province from today," Lieutenant General Sok Bunsoeun, deputy commander of RCAF division 5 in Kampot, told the Post on Dec 21. "It is a great victory."
In a telephone conversation on Dec 27, Siem Reap deputy governor Hem Bun Heng said: "The Khmer Rouge presence in this province is getting close to disappearing. I have very little concern about their ability to carry out activity in Siem Reap."
After a fierce two-week battle, involving 1800 RCAF troops assisted by three tanks and three armored personnel carriers, the KR base of Koh Sla town was taken on Dec 17.
Gen Bunsoeun said Koh Sla, about 40km north of Kampot town, had been the key supply and operational base for Kampot, Takeo and Kampong Speu provinces since the early 1980s.
It was an "economic zone" for the KR, producing thousands of tonnes of rice a year for comrades in other areas, according to Gen Bunsoeun. The RCAF found about 1000 tonnes of rice when they took the town.
Khmer Rouge General Paet - whose own Phnom Vour (Vine Mountain) stronghold 28km away was captured in October - had fled Koh Sla with the Koh Sla KR commander, a General Bet, and an unknown number of guerrillas.
Gen Bunsoeun said the two rebel generals were thought to have gone to a KR base and arsenal at Phnom Kravanh, about 150km northwest from Kampot town, in Pursat province.
He said he regretted that Paet - wanted for the murders of the three Phnom Vour hostages kidnapped in July - had escaped.
"(But) I am very happy that...he has had to flee Kampot soil."
Ninety-five KR guerrillas and 137 civilians who had been under their control defected during the Koh Sla fighting, he said.
Among those who helped to capture the town were Paet's former senior aide - controversial defector Colonel Chhouk Rin - and 100 of the general's former guerrillas who had defected during the fall of Phnom Vour.
The battle for Koh Sla began the day after Paet and a force of about 450 men were intercepted heading for Phnom Vour, in a bid to recapture the mountain, on Dec 3.
The Post reported in its last issue that the KR guerrillas beat off a RCAF counter-attack before being forced back to Koh Sla.
When Royal army forces from five provinces finally took the town on Dec 17, they found 192 houses used by the KR and their families, several trucks, 6 saw mills, a rice mill and 1000 tonnes of rice. Thousands of hectares of neighboring rice paddies were occupied by government forces.
By Dec 21, when the Post visited, small bands of KR remained as close as 4-5km to Koh Sla but Gen Bunsoeun did not consider them a threat.
"(Colonel) Rin's men are communicating with them to persuade them to surrender to us...they are ready to defect," he said.
Rin himself had been sent to Bokor Mountain, 40km west of Kampot town - where some 60 guerrillas left behind by Paet had escaped to - to encourage them to surrender what was thought to be a small rebel base there.
Gen Bunsoeun believed Koh Sla was safe from any counter-attack by the KR, saying the rebels in the immediate area lacked food, guns and ammunition.
He said 86 assorted weapons had been seized from the KR during the battle, and another 95 were handed over by KR defectors.
Of the Siem Reap defections, Hem Bun Heng said the defecting mob were led by Colonel Phor. The division 912 was responsible for military operations in Angkor Chum, Puork, Varin, Kralanh and Srey Snam districts.
The division was commanded by Kong, the long-time body guard of Pol Pot's military advisor Ta Mok. Kong was not among those who defected.
The defection was coordinated by written messages, radio and word of mouth, Hem Bun Heng said. The previous mass defection of fighters in Phnom Kulen had swayed the latest fighters into surrender.
"They cannot bear the orders from Ta Mok any longer. Their burning of houses, destroying crop and killing was the final step for them," he said.
However, the defections were also providing a headache. "The question the government must answer is that what will (the defectors) do? My proposal - and it is theirs too - is for them to have rice to eat and shelter," he said.
"I am very concerned because this is a key problem we must solve."
"Fighting brings no benefit... now, we are grabbing everything we can to give them because it takes time for the government to come up with an adequate response."
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