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O'Smach pummeled but gov't denies big offensive

O'Smach pummeled but gov't denies big offensive

R ENEWED fierce fighting at the resistance stronghold of O'Smach has led besieged

generals to claim the long-predicted dry season offensive has begun, although government

sources disputed the assertion.

"In the past 24 hours we have been hit by more than 500 rockets and 300 shells.

This is a very heavy barrage, but so far we have managed to hang on," resistance

deputy commander Gen Khan Savoeun said by telephone from a command bunker Dec 16.

He described the battles as the worst since the weeks after armed clashes caused

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh's forces to flee Phnom Penh for O'Smach

in early July.

Military analysts have been expecting fighting, which decreased during visits of

King Norodom Sihanouk and the worst of the rains, to intensify as the roads dry and

allow transport of men, tanks and arms. But O'Smach's easily defensible cliff top

location may make the town just as difficult to take today as it was in July, analysts

say.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gen Neang Phat said Dec 16: "Yes, we attacked O'Smach

since yesterday and the combat is still going on until today, but we have not got

any good result yet."

He denied the government has launched a dry-season offensive, saying the Royal Cambodian

Armed Forces (RCAF) are just pushing the opposition back in the wake of resistance

claims of military advances recently.

Approximately 3,000 troops, including military police sent from Phnom Penh, with

four tanks launched the new offensive at 7am on Dec 15, resistance spokesman Puth

Chandarith said by telephone.

During the attack, five missiles and three rounds of artillery shells fired by RCAF

landed on Thai soil, according to Chandarith. "The Thai army fired six rounds

of shells at [Prime Minister] Hun Sen's side. There were no casualties," he

added.

He said that communication radios were captured by the resistance during the combat,

allowing them to overhear RCAF calling for the evacuation of 48 dead and 35 wounded

soldiers.

He claimed that government forces radioed in both Khmer and Vietnamese languages.

"We cannot accuse Yuon [Vietnamese] soldiers of attacking us, but we heard Yuon

language being spoken on the radios."

Chandarith accused the government of financing the combat through illegal logging

and Chinese backing. He cited an $11 million logging deal - recently exposed by the

environmental group Global Witness - and also claimed that China was providing military

assistance to the government.

Chandarith expressed disappointment with China, saying: "Through this aid, it

can show the public that the Chinese government is creating a civil war and China

desires this war to be going on in Cambodia without end."

"We have no outside assistance but we will try to hang on. Remind the world

we are fighting for democracy," Khan Savoeun said between clearly audible small-arms

fire and exploding shells.

Chandarith claimed only three soldiers have been killed on the resistance side, and

Gen Savoeun claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on Phnom Penh's attacking forces.

Savoeun said 50 government troops had been killed in 48 hours.

But the Ministry of Defense spokesman disputed the figures. "Do not believe

the report of the killing as well as injury from the other side. They are putting

big numbers on the government side," Gen Phat said.

One freelance photojournalist, speaking by phone from the area near O'Smach, said

he saw the corpses of two civilians and two others with injuries that resulted from

a Khmer Rouge B-40 rocket attack on their truck which was transporting wood.

"They were driving a truck when they were ambushed near Kong Kriel on Route

68 two days ago," he said, adding that the Khmer Rouge continue to lay mines

on Rt 68 every night.

"I think the government has moved forward. [But] soldiers and the tanks have

stayed on the top of the mountain at O'Smach. [But] The Khmer Rouge and resistance

are holding O'Smach village," he said Dec 17. "A government commander told

me they will soon capture the town and maybe destroy it, but I don't think so. There

are too many mines in O'Smach."

He also confirmed that the fighting continues to spill over the border, which caused

Thai forces to respond in kind.

"Fighting goes over the border into Thailand everyday. Yesterday the Thais fired

four or five rounds of artillery that landed very close to government forces.

- Additional reporting by Huw Watkin.

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