Military historians and naval experts have determined that a warship found sunken in the river near Meanchey commune’s Veal village of Kampong Cham province’s Srei Santhor district had been used by soldiers of Marshal Lon Nol during the civil war.
Mey Sophea, commander of the UXO Clearance Unit of the National Centre for Peacekeeping Force and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance (NPMEC-ERW), told The Post on January 28 that the warship was 45m long and 8m wide and that it was a leftover from the French colonial era and of French manufacture and design.
The ship was mainly used for transport and had a cargo capacity large enough to carry in excess of 100 tonnes of ammunition or supplies.
“We’ve determined that this warship belonged to France. It had transported ammunition to Kampong Cham from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, known back then as Saigon, which was the location of most of the major US military bases during the war there.
“The ammunition was provided to support Lon Nol’s forces in Cambodia during the 1970-1975 war,” he said.
Sophea added that the ship bore the name Khmer National Marine in French and it had a crew of up to 30.
It was not known how many people were on the ship or how many died from the blast or survived it back when the ship was sunk by an explosion.
To date, Sophea said, salvage operations in and around the wreck have recovered more than six tonnes of ammunition. Divers will continue exploring the wreck every day until the recovery is complete.
According to Sophea there is an estimated 50 to 100 tonnes of ammunition that needs to be safely removed from the wreck and that the estimate will become more precise over time as they continue to survey its contents.
Sophea said that operations to remove the ammunition from the wreck should be finished in May of this year but the exact timeline would depend on practical considerations like weather or available personnel.
Prime Minister Hun Sen established an inter-ministerial task force on August 28 last year to study the shipwreck and dispose of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) in its cargo hold.
The task force is comprised of 17 members with Ministry of National Defence secretary of state Neang Phat serving as chairman.
Divers explored an area of the river measuring 1,500m by 1,000m (150ha) in order to plan the recovery of the UXO from the wreck and its surroundings.
They divided the area into three zones – a high-risk zone measuring 200m x 200m and a medium-risk zone measuring 500m x 1,000m with a larger low-risk zone encompassing them.