Cambodia's Army, Now Unified, Attacks Recalcitrant Khmer Rouge
Government in Phnom Penh mounts offensvie to unify country
PHUM CHHAT, CAMBODIA
PIECES of Khmer Rouge uniforms, some blood-stained and tattered, lay strewn outside smoldering ruins of huts after guerrillas and peasants fled this timber-rich village, which was once a control center and supply base for the jungle-based warriors.
Documents addressed to Khmer Rouge leaders and photo albums that included snapshots of key figures also were left behind after the hurried evacuation last week from Phum Chhat, near the Thai border in northwestern Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey Province.
But the guerrillas foiled a primary aim of the approaching Cambodian government troops: They fled with most of their weapons and destroyed ammunition they couldn't carry, says Gen. Khoun Roen, who led the Army's assault.
Recent government offensives aimed at driving the guerrillas from strongholds in central and northwestern Cambodia clearly have them on the run, but failure to disarm the Khmer Rouge who fled Phum Chhat, allegedly with help from Thailand, has limited the success of the operation.
That aside, the offensives delivered a strong message to the guerrillas who have tried to sabotage the United Nations-run peace process in Cambodia: The new leadership in Phnom Penn is tired of Khmer Rouge recalcitrance and prepared to move forcefully to enforce its political will to unite the country after decades of strife.
UN spokesman Eric Falt said this week that details of casualties were not available, but reports indicated they were light despite sustained artillery barrages in some areas.
The government drive was the first major offensive by Cambodia's newly unified Army. The new Army brings together forces previously under control of former Prime Minister Hun Sen and two opposition armies that had been allies of the Khmer Rouge before signing the peace accords in 1991 that formally ended 13 years of civil war.
The Cambodian Army's military push last week also marked the first time government forces moved so aggressively into territory held by the Khmer Rouge, whose brutal reign in the 1970s led to the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. Khmer Rouge leaders were ousted from power in 1979 by invading Vietnamese, and they fled to remote jungle bases.
The Khmer Rouge joined the other three warring Cambodian factions in signing the Paris peace accords, but then boycotted UN-monitored elections in May. The group has continued a violent campaign in the countryside by killing ethnic Vietnamese, destroying roads and bridges, and ambushing trains.
The government says the Khmer Rouge must open its territory and agree to come under command of the unified Army.
General Roen indicates the Cambodian Army will strike again if the Khmer Rouge sticks to its hard-line stand of demanding an advisory role in the government without meeting the government's conditions.
"If the Khmer Rouge cannot join the new government and cannot agree with the government to disarm and make peace, the government won't be afraid to attack again and clean out all the Khmer Rouge," he says.
Hours after the Aug. 20 evacuation from Phum Chhat, government soldiers celebrated the three- day offensive that had driven out the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers ransacked homes and carried off a bounty of goods ranging from fattened pigs to plastic toys.
One soldier swilled from a bottle, a light-machine gun slung from his shoulder. Another, disregarding the danger of mines that had injured three of his comrades earlier, ran through the brush after a squawking chicken. Others perused Khmer Rouge propaganda pamphlets as they clustered on a tank. Some fired staccato bursts from their guns into the air.
Roen says that the night before, the Khmer Rouge commander in the village had contacted his officers through Thai intermediaries and offered to withdraw from the area after Army artillery pounded the region.
The deal stipulated that Khmer Rouge fighters would leave their weapons behind, but the guerrillas reneged, the general says.
Thai military leaders sent trucks to evacuate the Khmer Rouge, he says, helping the guerrillas make their way to other territory under the group's control and away from the fighting.
"I am angry with Thailand because Thailand allowed the Khmer Rouge to leave here armed," Roen says.
Thailand has denied helping the Khmer Rouge. But continued gem and lumber trade across the border from Khmer Rouge-held territory has helped sustain the guerrillas after the cutoff of aid from China.
Roen says 400 Khmer Rouge fighters and about 1,000 villagers fled the Phum Chhat area.
UN officials and aid agencies are still discussing what to do with about 2,000 people displaced by last week's fighting in northwestern Cambodia.
In addition, plans were being made to provide food for about 6,000 people who left their homes because of fighting in central Kompong Thom Province, a UN aid agency spokesman says.