siem reap town – On the RCAF’s tactical map at Anlong Veng, Mountain 200 is the object of blue and black arrows that represent columns of pro-government troops seeking to capture the embattled Khmer Rouge outpost.
For soldiers on the front line 2 km south of the hilltop perch, however, Mountain 200 has captured their imagination because they’re hot and thirsty.
“The Khmer Rouge are defending Mountain 200 so tenaciously because there is a lot of drinking water there,” said Som Ieng, 27, who returned here from the front line on Tuesday.
Kroum Khiel, 31, covered in tattoos and charms he believes protect him, said Wednesday afternoon at the Siem Reap Military Hospital that a stepped-up government assault has been predicated primarily on a shortage of water—not a desire to achieve territorial integrity.
“Government soldiers spent about one week with little or no water,” he said. “That’s why we are trying to push the Khmer Rouge off of Mountain 200.”
Som Ieng and Kroum Khiel are two of 20 injured government troops being treated at the hospital since arriving by helicopter from Anlong Veng on Tuesday.
The wounded soldiers said commanders have dispatched missions of up to 15 men at a time to try to crawl on their bellies through dense jungle for 2 km to a reservoir on top of Mountain 200.
They have made attempts—mostly futile so far—at night and during the day to bring drinking water back to others, the soldiers said.
“That’s why I’m wounded,” Som Ieng said.
Asked where he was wounded, he touched his groin tenderly. Other soldiers crowded around, listening intently to the Anlong Veng returnee begin to laugh hysterically.
He explained that when he finally reached the reservoir at about noon on Monday, he was struck by shrapnel from a grenade lobbed by hard-liners defending their water supply.
The sought-after drinking water emanates from springs that pool naturally and also at a small reservoir on top of the mountain, the soldiers said.
Hem Ho, 39, who defected in April from Ta Mok’s personal bodyguard unit of Division 912, said water is one of the most valuable supplies for soldiers in a war.
“Soldiers depend a lot on the water supply,” he said.
While he himself has not been involved in clandestine water supply attacks, the former Khmer Rouge cadre has been guiding government troops through the dense jungle and mine fields.
The wounded front-line soldiers at the hospital also asserted that the number of government soldiers being wounded has increased since the middle of last week, when the RCAF bolstered its offensive on hard-line Khmer Rouge positions in the Dangrek Mountains.
At least one soldier is dying every day from hard-line artillery, according to Som Ieng and Kroum Khiel.
On Monday, a Division 11 soldier was killed, they said. Rebel shells are landing almost daily in Anlong Veng village, some 13 km south of Mountain 200.
Claims by top RCAF brass that government forces hold Mountain 200 are false, the soldiers said at the hospital. Hard-liners still hold key positions on top of the mountain.
Top government generals have claimed since Saturday that Phnom Penh-supported forces successfully stormed the mountain top outpost and pushed hard-liners closer to the Thai border.
The front-line fighters said two Khmer Rouge tanks have retreated from Mountain 200 and onto another nearby hill several days ago, they said.
“But there are still a lot of machine guns and mortars up there,” Som Ieng complained. A nasty discovery of the past weeks’ assault was that Ta Mok has two tanks, not one, as previously believed.
Thai authorities told Agence France-Presse that heavy fighting took place Wednesday surrounding two strategic passes—Sa Ngam Pass and further east at Samraong Pass—on the mountainous border. Government forces were shelling guerrilla positions, they said.
The government on Wednesday re-armed its northern forces, sending one ton of B-40 rockets and mortar shells up to the base at O Chim Chieng, 4 km south of Anlong Veng village.
On Tuesday, they sent anti-tank artillery up north, military airport staff said.