Cambodian security forces have been placed on high alert as a 48-hour deadline for US-led forces to invade Iraq began counting down on Tuesday and regional governments prepared for a terrorist backlash in Southeast Asia, officials said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Tuesday that security personnel were deployed on Monday night to foreign embassies in Phnom Penh. The premier also declared for the first time that Cambodia could be the target of a terrorist attack.
Regional capitals are braced for possible attacks by pro-Iraq supporters, and security has been boosted at Western embassies in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines.
Hun Sen said that Cambodians have nothing to fear from a war in Iraq but called on shopkeepers not to use the impending war as an excuse to raise prices on foodstuffs and fuel. A government commission will be established to ensure price stability, he said.
“All forces and authorities should definitely protect all foreigners who are staying in Cambodia because, according to warnings, Iraq could fight the US or make terrorism anywhere,” Hun Sen said on national radio.
“In Phnom Penh I just deployed…forces to seriously defend all embassy compounds and called for caution because nowadays there are many tourists visiting, so the terrorists could sneak into Cambodia,” he added.
Authorities are hunting for possible terrorist agents and accomplices who could attempt an attack similar to that on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, he said. Dual nightclub bombings there killed nearly 200 people in October.
But despite the security boost, Interior Ministry Chief of Staff Mao Chandara said there is no evidence that al-Qaida or other terrorist cells are operating in Cambodia. Chief of Military Intelligence Mol Roeup agreed, but said security forces are on alert.
Interior Ministry Spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said security at diplomatic compounds has been increased since the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US. He called the latest operation an “upgrading of vigilance.”
Police patrols were sent out on Monday night to increase security around embassies, especially the US, British and Australian compounds, Mao Chandara said.
Mao Chandara declined to reveal the number of officers taking part in the operation, but said that heavy armor was also available if required by police.
“The war with Iraq and the US is not normal. We are afraid it will have influence [here],” Mao Chandara said. “So this issue needs to be scrutinized.”
Officials at the US and Australian embassies said Tuesday that their missions have been on a heightened state of alert since the Sept 11 and Bali attacks and that security assessments are continually updated. However, the officials were unaware of a security operation announced by Hun Sen.
There were no visible signs of an increased security presence at the embassies Tuesday evening.
Cambodia was fingered as a possible terrorist target by Omar al-Farouq, considered al-Qaida’s facilitator for Southeast Asia, during interrogation in Afghanistan last September.
A member of Cambodia’s ethnic minority Muslim Cham community said Tuesday that in recent months there has been an increase of foreign Islamic followers spreading anti-US and anti-Western propaganda in Cambodia.
The attempt to politicize the Cham community is worrying, the official said, adding that few Cambodian Muslims harbor anti-Western attitudes.
(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)