Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - RCAF pushes towards Pailin

RCAF pushes towards Pailin

RCAF pushes towards Pailin

BATTAMBANG - As heavy fighting continues between RCAF and Khmer Rouge forces, Government

denials of an impending offensive against Pailin sound hollow.

Usually heralded under a blaze of publicity, the Government has turned about face,

opting instead for a slow but determined push, in secrecy that includes banning journalists

past Kilo 38 on Route 10.

One Western military observer said of the government's denials: "They never

admit they're going for Pailin.

"But they are using the same tactics they were in 1994...They'll be in Pailin

soon," he said.

It's believed recent heavy RCAF casualties in Khai Dan and repeated advice by foreign

governments to wait until forces are better prepared has changed Government policy.

The Government has also "learned its lesson from 1994," said the observer,

when they took but quickly lost the rebel capital. In that year, when the RCAF was

ousted from Pailin, the Khmer Rouge came within 15 kms from Battambang.

As one senior military commander and veteran of the 1994 offensive told the Post,

when asked about the current situation: "Don't confuse 1994 with 1996. We have

lost Pailin once before, we know how not to do it again."

The military, it now seems, intends fighting the rebels on its own terms - with the

exception of Khai Dan where the Government has been forced once again to protect

trade links.

The RCAF well outnumber the rebels. Government, NGO and military advisors all quote

different statistics on the number of soldiers in the area.

Government forces are put variously up to 14,000 - according to some people, even

much more.

Reliable sources put about 5,000 men between Sisophon and Poipet, and the rest throughout

Battambang province, mainly in Treng and Bavel.

Reports have been heard of the Khmer Rouge stiffening their forces, including defrocking

monks back into uniform. But as yet there have been no serious attempts at undermining

the province's security.

The Western observer said that the Khmer Rouge may number little more than 1,000

in the north-east.

"They have been crippled by defections, and there has obviously been a decision

to break up their numbers into smaller units. There are about 500 in Preah Vihear,

around 100 in the Phnom Vour area in the south, and others in Tippaday, Mong Russey

and Siem Reap," he said.

He said: "Maybe the rebels care about losing Pailin, but they can't do anything

about it. They realise that they haven't got the strength to encounter the RCAF directly.

"All they can do is to make hit-and-run attacks, and pin them down for a while

with what artillery they have."

When asked if the government could hold Pailin after it was taken, the observer said:

"Yes. Absolutely."

He said the RCAF had improved their overall logistics and were taking the offensive

slowly, "cleaning up" as they went by using villagers to rebuild roads.

RCAF forces have made significant gains in the last few weeks in both Bavel and Treng,

in well planned and executed maneuvers.

On Route 10, the RCAF have captured several hills formerly held by the KR and are

now 11 kms west of Treng.

They have also captured and fortified positions around Treng, and with the support

of helicopter gun ships have begun assaulting Phnom Veng, the KR artillery base overlooking

Pailin.

Since Jan 26 the RCAF have pushed the KR back from Bavel, in the process capturing

two major bases and large amounts of ammunition.

Big earthworks are underway on Route 58 to Pailin, indicating the Government may

enter Pailin from there.

In a Government "food for work" program, the road, formerly impassable

to most vehicles, is being rebuilt as a major secondary route. Most local villagers

are working, with construction started virtually as the RCAF began taking KR territory.

Sources say that if the rebel road network to the west - which has given them the

ability to reinforce with ease - was compromised, then the two main KR forces would

be further isolated.

It is understood too that Pailin is empty save for a reported force of 30, with six

anti-aircraft guns. RCAF helicopter gun ships have been bombing the town.

As one Western military attaché said recently: "They can walk into Pailin

at the moment and level all existing infrastructure then leave."

He said it was a sign of "military maturity" that the RCAF is attempting

a long-term solution.

Treatment of troops - considered a major reason for past defeats at Anglong Veng

and Pailin - has also considerably improved.

After initial problems with the distribution of rice and pay, which predictably resulted

in heavy desertions, the situation has been corrected.

Casualties are being sent immediately to field hospitals with surgeons, or to provincial

hospitals.

About five soldiers are being treated on average each day, far fewer than in the

previous two years.

The shortage of blood for transfusions however is still severe.

Battambang city is still under a 11pm-5am curfew - though this is seen as an attempt

to keep soldiers in line, rather than to counter a threat of terrorist activities.

The KR is mounting night attacks mainly in Banan, targeting the railway and the RCAF

artillery at Tipperday.

The biggest concern is in Mong Russey, where fighting has been continuous for about

a week.

Military intelligence has released a statement saying the attacks were a serious

attempt to annex the town, not a diversion.

Reports also suggest that rebels attacking Mong Russey have been reinforced by others

from the Tonle Sap region.

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