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Weapons seizure ignites party sniping

Weapons seizure ignites party sniping

A container load of weapons seized in Sihanoukville last weekend became the center

of a highly-charged political stand-off between Funcinpec and CPP troops.

After a portion of the shipment was transferred by helicopter to Pochentong military

airport Monday, scores of troops loyal to both parties moved into position around

the area as senior military officials disputed who control the cargo.

CPP officials charged that the container - which bore labels addressed to First Prime

Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh - had been brought into the country illegally and

that Funcinpec had attempted to keep the freight contents secret.

"Very high officials from Phnom Penh were putting pressure on official authorities

in Kompong Som to bring in the crates," said Secretary of State for Information

Khieu Kanharith (CPP).

"If you bring in equipment items to Cambodia all these items must be inspected,

this is the rule," he said. The CPP official added that suspicions were aroused

when Funcinpec officials in the capital issued a "verbal order" to local

authorities to allow the arms to pass through the port uninspected.

Funcinpec maintained that the weapons - which they say were destined for Ranariddh's

bodyguard unit - were a lawful and routine shipment as it had been approved by the

First Prime Minister.

"Prince Ranariddh is the First Prime Minister and the co-commander in chief

of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, so he has full authority to order armaments,"

said Secretary of State for Defense Ek Sereywath (Funcinpec).

"All the weapons came to the Sihanoukville port, so there was no hiding. It's

not like we brought them in from the Vietnamese border," he said and claimed

that Ranariddh's signature on the shipping documents made the import legal.

According to Kanharith, only the co-Ministers of Defense have the right to authorize

the import of weapons and that shipments must be arranged through the Defense budget.

Documents viewed by the Post showed that the cargo originated from the Polish port

of Gdywia and contained 78 cases of armaments including rocket launchers, rifles,

pistols and ammunition.

By Tuesday afternoon, a committee of top officials from the Ministry of Defense had

worked out a compromise over the disputed materiel and tensions appeared to have

eased.

"The co-Ministers of Defense will take charge of the weapons. [Funcinpec] General

Nhek Bun Chhay will take care of the light arms temporarily and the heavy weapons

will go to the military [RCAF] warehouse [in Phnom Penh]," said Kanharith.

It is unclear how much of the shipment was brought to Phnom Penh, but it was perhaps

about half of it according to one military observer with knowledge of the case.

Sihanoukville police officials confirmed the remainder was being held by military

police there.

In a May 2 letter addressed to the director of the Sihanoukville port seen by the

Post, Ranariddh requested the transfer of a container of "spare parts"

to General Tach Sourng, commander of the First Prime Minister's bodyguard unit.

"I would like to inform the director that the spare parts in this container

are the spare parts which I have brought from overseas for use," Ranariddh said

in the letter.

A letter requesting tax exemption for the container of "spare parts", signed

by Ranariddh's deputy director of cabinet, Kong Vibol, was approved by Finance State

Secretary, Sun Chantol (Funcinpec) May 20.

Ek Sereywath explained that Ranariddh's letter referred to the weapons as "spare

parts" because the shipping company had identified the container's content as

such.

CPP officials did not agree, hinting that the mislabeling of the cargo content was

a deliberate attempt by Funcinpec to cover their tracks in an illegal deal

"Any intention to hide something doesn't help the mutual trust between the two

parties," Kanharith said.

Military observers and diplomats in Phnom Penh maintained that the incident was not

very significant in nature but that CPP was exploiting the issue to cause Funcinpec

an embarrassment.

"One can't be amazed. This is not that abnormal, it is just very badly timed,"

said one analyst.

According to observers, both coalition parties routinely skirt the law in procuring

weapons to arm their respective troops.

In an unrelated move, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has boosted his bodyguard force

to a total of 1500 soldiers, according to an Apr 26 letter signed by his bodyguard

commander, General Hing Bun Hieng.

The letter, to Hun Sen, notified the Prime Minister that RCAF chief of staff Ke Kim

Yan had agreed to a proposal to add a further 283 soldiers to the bodyguard unit,

meaning that it would total 1500.

The letter said the extra troops would come from Kandal province, and asssured Hun

Sen that they were all CPP loyalists.

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