svay chek district, Banteay Meanchey province – Sixteen villagers collecting firewood and herding cattle last Friday near the remote northwestern hamlet of Doun Nouy were abducted by 10 resistance soldiers and held for ransom, military and police officials said.
The women were repeatedly raped—one of them by all 10 of her abductors, they said.
Three days earlier, resistance forces once loyal to deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh attacked a government military barracks in nearby Svay Chek commune, killing two RCAF soldiers. And on March 21, rebels north of Thma Puok town kidnapped four motorbike drivers and held them for ransom.
Rebels have burned homes, ransacked villages and blown up bridges. They’ve even abducted monks, according to local police and high-ranking military officials.
Terror reigns in much of the northwest.
“People dare not go anywhere because they are afraid of the rebels,” said Doun Eak, who runs a roadside drink stand in Treas village on Route 69, an hour’s drive north of Sisophon.
In response to the escalating attacks, government forces said they launched an offensive Tuesday to “clean up” rebel bases in the northwestern jungle.
the northwestern jungle.
“We have to send more troops there to strengthen security for the villagers before the election,” said Ko Chean, commander of Battambang-based Military Region 5, which covers Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces.
Ko Chean said fighting started Tuesday, but it wasn’t clear how many troops were sent or whether there were any casualties. Deputy Commander Ek Som On declined to discuss the campaign’s progress Thursday.
But both commanders said rebels have disrupted life in Banteay Meanchey province, especially in the districts of Ampil, Thma Puok and Phnom Srok.
About 500 rebels are working in small groups across the province, according to Colonel Son Sophat, chief of staff for RCAF Division 7 in Thma Puok. The rebels are former Division 7 and 12 RCAF soldiers who fled their posts after July’s factional fighting.
About 60 of the resistance soldiers who followed former Division 12 commander Lay Virak into the jungle last July defected to the government Monday, Ko Chean claimed.
In addition to the resistance fighters, an estimated 300 hard-line Khmer Rouge troops from Anlong Veng are believed to be active in the province, military sources said. The soldiers are based in the jungle, but frequently conduct raids on travelers or small farming villages—ostensibly to obtain supplies.
“People are very scared of going out to find firewood or to look after cows in the field,” said Ses Varin, police chief of Treas commune, home to more than 9,000 residents.
In an interview Sunday in his commune, surrounded by fresh trenches, Ses Varin and other commune officials described last Friday’s attack near Doun Nouy village. Eight men and eight women were collecting firewood and tending cattle when 10 resistance soldiers from the jungle abducted them at about 8:30 am.
One of the hostages was released in order to collect a $3,845 ransom, but families couldn’t raise the money. Instead, they contacted police. A combined force of 59 policemen and soldiers attacked the rebel camp in a battle that lasted until 4 pm, Ses Varin said.
Four resistance soldiers were killed and one seriously wounded. The other five fled. Government troops recovered three weapons.
All of the women were raped, one of them 10 times, Ses Varin said. Division 7 officials confirmed the account.
Attempts to reach the village, 5 km from the main road, were unsuccessful Sunday. Motorbike drivers said it was too dangerous. A taxi driver with a new Nissan refused to go, even with an armed escort.
Ses Varin said the 10 resistance soldiers formerly belonged to Division 12 in Nimith village along Route 5. He claimed they were addicted to drugs and each wore an earring.
“According to our interrogation, the captured rebel admitted that they attempted to prevent the election from running smoothly,” the police chief said.
The soldiers reportedly were assigned to find supplies for the front lines. “These people have been misled,” said Son Sophat, of Division 7. “The leader promised to pay them $40 a month. They got nothing.”
“The only way then can survive,” he added, “is to ask for assistance from the villagers. But this year, the farms didn’t do well. So there is no other way but to extort the villagers.”
The rebels could be an embarrassment to Prince Ranariddh, in whose name they allegedly fight. But one Western military analyst said this guerrilla war has nothing to do with loyalty to the prince. “This is about business and not about resistance,” the analyst said, saying that rebel soldiers are seeking to maintain control over sources of income along the Thai border, including illegal logging.
The analyst said the government will have trouble stopping rebels in Banteay Meanchey.
Recent assaults conducted by rebel units include the March 24 attack on military barracks in Khvaav Lech village in Svay Chek commune. Two RCAF soldiers were killed and one wounded, Ses Varin said. In all, three government soldiers were killed last month and 10 wounded, Son Sophat said. He claimed five resistance soldiers died in battle.
In the March 21 attack, rebels captured four motorbike drivers in Thma Puok commune, demanding $385.
On Feb 19, Buddhist monks were kidnapped near Doun Nouy village for $900. The government threatened to attack but did not want the monks hurt. So villagers collected the money to free the captives, Ses Varin said.
In January in Bantoat Baoh village in Taa Phou commune, rebels captured the daughter of the village chief and raped her, according to Ses Varin and Son Sophat.
“I am very worried about my safety,” said Doun Eak, the vendor in Treas village.
Normally at this time of year, residents begin dancing and celebrating at night in anticipation of the Khmer New Year, she said. “But not anymore,” she said, “because we are very afraid.”