Army Pointing at Hard-Line Rebels in Friday Assault
Gunmen on Friday attacked a convoy of electoral officials northeast of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, killing two military escorts and wounding five others, army and poll officials said.
RCAF Deputy Chief of Staff Meas Sophea on Sunday blamed the attack on hard-line guerrillas under the command of rebel military chief Ta Mok, believed to be hiding close to the Thai border.
“Trapaing Prasat is one of the remote areas where it is easy for the Khmer Rouge to launch skirmishes and guerrilla-style ambushes,” he said.
The ambush came at 3:40 pm Friday as the tractor convoy was traveling northeast from Anlong Veng with a delivery of ballot boxes and papers for a polling station in the settlement of Trapaing Prasat, Meas Sophea reported.
About seven hard-liners ambushed the convoy, firing a B-40 rocket that killed the two soldiers instantly and wounded others—among them poll officials from the local election commission. Ballot boxes and papers aboard the convoy were destroyed in the blast, Meas Sophea said.
Three of the wounded, including a Siem Reap provincial election commission official and the deputy director of the Anlong Veng commune election commission, remain in serious condition, National Election Committee Chairman’s spokesman Samraing Kamsan said Sunday.
Friday’s attack was the first reported incident of violence against poll officials, and the first apparent attempt by the guerrilla group to disrupt the process.
Anlong Veng and the surrounding area, including Trapaing Prasat, were held by the Khmer Rouge until March, when a split in the movement precipitated mass defections, sending the leadership into retreat toward the Thai border.
Thousands of Khmer Rouge defectors who took refuge in camps on the outskirts of Anlong Veng now have returned to their former homes.
Meas Sophea said Sunday that despite government dominion over the area, clashes have taken place recently between army forces and the rebels.
“The day before this incident took place, there were skirmishes between RCAF and Khmer Rouge rebels in that area, in which government soldiers killed one of Ta Mok’s soldiers,” he said.
But he denied the convoy’s venture into the area had been foolish, saying the ambush could not have been predicted. In addition, he said, army soldiers had just been issued with an order to ensure extra security for the elections in Anlong Veng.
One military analyst on Sunday, however, cast doubt on the official version of events, saying the incident was at least, if not more likely, to have been the result of tensions between recent rebel defectors and government forces.
“[The defectors] are dependent on the transport of supplies and materials by the RCAF,” he said. “If their supplies have been dwindling, and helicopters are being used to bring in ballot boxes, they may be thinking, ‘Why can’t they be used to bring in supplies as well?’”
The analyst also hinted the government might have been over-optimistic in thinking the rebels could be so easily assimilated after up to three decades in isolation.
Frustration at failing to secure autonomy of the level won by defectors in Pailin could also contribute to tensions, he noted.
A last-minute registration drive in the former rebel territory produced an electoral roll of approximately 5,000 names. Eleven polling stations have now been established for those people to vote, and electoral officials are currently in the process of equipping the stations with the materials necessary for the scheduled July 26 elections.
Senior election officials in Phnom Penh pledged Saturday that they would not allow the attack to deter them from holding the polls in the former Khmer Rouge territory.
“It is very sad, this incident, but in other areas there are other incidents where people intimidate and try to cause problems,” said NEC Secretary-General Im Suorsdei. “I’m optimistic. I’m not pulling out.”