Vietnamese troops on Monday began their anticipated attack on the headquarters of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), one of the three Khmer groups opposed to the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia). As the battle raged, with Vietnam's soldiers supported by tanks and artillery, a source close to Hanoi said that the Vietnamese were going all-out to destroy the base at Ampil on the Thai-Kampuchea border.
The attack fell on the sixth anniversary of the Vietnamese overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea and was preceeded on Sunday by a barrage of leaflets in Khmer, calling on the defenders to rally to the Hanoi-backed Phnom Penh government.
KPNLF and Western diplomatic sources say the assault itself was launched by a division-sized unit -- probably between 5,000 and 6,000 men, backed by 15 tanks. A Western source added that the attackers included two battalions -- 400 to 500 men -- from Hanoi's Khmer allies.
Sources at the border said that tanks were heard inside the camp early Monday morning: A KPNLF spokesman later said the Vietnamese had penetrated the defensive perimeter in three places, capturing the military headquarters. The spokesman added that the headquarters had later been recaptured and that six Vietnamese armored vehicles, including an unspecified number of tanks, had been disabled.
KPNLF leaders have in recent weeks stressed that they would defend their bases vigorously, but not to the point of losing all their fighting men. Even before the battle at Ampil, their losses appear to have been quite high. Just before Monday's attack a senior KPNLF official said 103 guerrillas had been killed and more than 450 wounded during the present Vietnamese offensive.
The Vietnamese seem determined to destroy the three noncommunist groups this year. Two groups -- the KPNLF and the Sihanoukists -- are politically more credible but militarily more vulnerable than the Khmer Rouge. Their destruction would be a serious embarrassment to Western supporters of the anti-Hanoi tripartite coalition.
Ampil is the last big camp still under KPNLF control, but it is by far the best defended. If the Vietnamese are successful here, sources close to the Indochinese suggest, they may turn their attention to the Sihanoukist base of Tatum.
The Khmer Rouge have been all but ignored by the Vietnamese so far. But in one little-noticed attack the Vietnamese are reported to have captured a small Khmer Rouge camp near Ampil, severing Khmer Rouge supply lines to parts of western Kampuchea.