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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.