Armed Rebels Make Deadly Night Raid on Phnom Penh

The center of Phnom Penh city was thrown into turmoil early Friday morning when an estimated 50-strong force of alleged anti-government insurgents attacked two city locations using B-40 rockets, grenades and AK-47s.

The small arms fire, which began at 1:30 am at the intersection of Monivong and Poch­entong boulevards, was followed by a rocket attack at the military’s B70 Battalion headquarters in Dang­kao district on the city outskirts.

Seven alleged insurgents were left dead after the attacks and 11 government forces injured, some of them seriously, Governor Chea Sophara said Friday.

Municipal officials have identified the attackers as members of a US-based anti-communist group which they claim launched the attack to undermine the government’s hold on security in Phnom Penh.

The late night street battles, which lasted for 90 minutes, were the most serious armed conflict in the city since the 1997 fighting between CPP and Funcinpec troops.

However, an Interior Ministry police official and an Asian diplomat based in Phnom Penh ex­pressed skepticism Friday that the attack was simply the work of politically motivated insurgents bent on taking over the city.

Although details are still sketchy, the Interior Ministry officer said that the group was too lightly armed to pose any real threat to government forces.

A number of theories are circulating regarding the real motive for the attack and the real identity of the perpetrators, said the Asian diplomat, who requested anon­ymity.

“This looks like a political game. [Insurgents] wouldn’t come to fight wearing only T-shirts and sandals and one AK-47,” the diplomat said. “Those they captured are criminal types. They know nothing about politics.”

Armed with assault rifles, grenades and at least one B-40 gre­nade launcher, the attackers began their assault from the central train station located just off Monivong Boulevard around 1:30 am. They wore saffron colored headbands, one bearing the slogan “The father comes to help the children because the children are sad.”

Eye witnesses say the group of between 20 and 30 men moved from the train station firing rockets, automatic weapons and throw­ing grenades as they ad­vanced west on Pochentong Boulevard toward the Council of Ministers’ building and the Min­istry of Defense.

First to fall to the attackers’ onslaught were a group of seven Municipal Traffic Police traveling in an open back truck outside the TV 3 television station offices on Pochentong Boulevard.

The group lobbed two gre­nades and riddled the truck with gunfire, injuring six of the seven police officers, some of whom sustained serious leg injuries, one of the injured said at Calmette Hos­pital after the attack.

An MPA security guard at the nearby Total petrol station was also badly injured in the opening shots of the street battle.

MPA country manager Chris Berger said Friday that security guard Ngy Sarath, 22, was wound­ed in both legs when caught in the crossfire between the alleged insurgents and police stationed nearby.

“He was in between the police and the bad guys…. But he stayed on the job. I think he’s a hero,” Berger said.

The alleged insurgents then moved on foot toward the Council of Ministers’ building where they threw at least one grenade over a pro­tective fence, shattering eight large windows on the ground floor.

An 8-cm deep hole in the pavement outside the offices was caused by a rebel rocket, said se­curity guards who were on du­ty Friday.

Three rockets also landed in the grounds of RCAF’s B70 Bat­talion headquarters on National Route 3, around three km west beyond Pochentong Airport.

The rockets injured three RCAF soldiers who were sleeping at the time of the attack, said a soldier at the battalion HQ who requested anonymity.

One of the alleged attackers was later killed, he added.

Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said Friday the rebels’ main target was the Ministry of Defense located some 300 meters from the Council of Ministers on Pochentong Boulevard.

“Their aim was to destroy the Council of Ministers and the Min­istry of Defense. They also had many more targets in the city,” said Chea Sophara, adding that stiff resistance from RCAF soldiers inside the Defense Ministry stymied the rebels’ advance.

Municipal security officials were aware of a pending attack on the city and were already on high alert, said Chea Sophara, who arrived on Pochentong Boule­vard with Municipal Mil­itary Police Commander Chhin Chanpor shortly after the attack begun.

Vowing to root out the “terrorists” and restore order to the city, Chea Sophara, with two carloads of bodyguards, drove toward the Ministry of Defense building, which was still under attack from the rebels.

Chea Sophara’s vehicle was hit several times when an intense barrage of gunfire erupted as the three-car convoy approached.

Bullets could be seen ricocheting from the cars and nearby build­ings

Contacted by telephone soon after the risky maneuver, Chea Sophara said he made the decision to prove that the city was still             under his control. No one was hurt in the gunfire, he added.

“This is my job,” Chea Sophara said.

Municipal and military police initially ran from the direction of  Monivong Boulevard to support the governor but were slowed by intense gunfire and the threat of snipers on the railway side of the road.

On numerous occasions heavy gunfire from the ministry forced the advancing officers to take cover behind trees and a sentry box at the Council of Ministers.

The officers eventually reached the Ministry of Defense around 3 am, where the body of one insurgent was discovered nearby.

Armed with an AK-47 and carrying three rocket propelled grenades in a backpack, the dead man wore a saffron headband and a tee-shirt bearing the logo of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters.

Believing the stretch of road was secure, military and municipal police officers then retreated back to Monivong Boulevard.             The insurgent’s body was left untouched as police feared it might be booby trapped.

By 3 am gunfire had quieted down but security forces were on high alert as dozens of suspects were rounded up in mass sweeps of city streets and adjoining areas where the attacks occurred.

Municipal officials could not confirm the total number of suspects arrested by late Friday evening. However, diplomatic sources put the figure more than 50.

Two more people, a man and his wife, were taken into custody mid Friday morning in Kompong Speu province, where military police looking for suspected rebels found them hiding radio equipment thought to be used to coordinate the attack. The unidentified man told police he was only holding the equipment for his brother.

(Additional reporting Gina Chon, Pin Sisovann, Thet Sambath, Seth Meixner and Jody McPhillips)




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