siem reap town – Top military commanders trying to eradicate guerrillas from the inhospitable Dangrek Mountains acknowledged on Thursday that a fight they have promised to end swiftly could take much longer.
They also said it is unlikely more hard-line Khmer Rouge soldiers will defect, apparently signaling the end to a government strategy that was successful in bringing over more than 2,000 fighters and thousands of civilians in late March.
The RCAF last week stepped up their advance on hard-line Khmer Rouge positions atop the Dangrek escarpment 110 km northeast of here, scattering thousands of villagers and families of rebel soldiers who fled for safety into nearby Thailand.
“I can’t estimate how long it will take to clear the area because the jungle is so complex,” General Kao Thy, the Military Region 4 chief of staff and RCAF’s head tactical officer at the front, said at the military airfield here.
Both he and Meas Sophea, deputy chief of staff for the RCAF General Staff, confirmed on Thursday that the guerrillas are holding positions in the vicinity of 200 Mountain, their key outpost for the last six weeks.
For more than a month, RCAF commanders have declared that a sweeping military action would take two days to finish the rebels off. The only thing preventing the attack until last week was their attempts to secure defections from Ta Mok’s beleaguered forces, they said.
Meas Sophea said Thursday that efforts to secure defections from the remaining rank-and-file hard-liners have collapsed.
“The government has no choice but to fight,” Meas Sophea said. “The remaining soldiers will not defect. They are loyal to Ta Mok and no one else.”
After garnering mass defections from the rebel group over the last two months and gaining ground on the guerrillas at the outset of their offensive late last week, the government appears to have stumbled into the reality of the situation.
“The government troops cannot move very fast” because of the heavily mined battlefield, Meas Sophea said. “It is not going to be easy to clear guerrillas out of the area. Right now we are concentrating on demining it.”
The RCAF also discovered during their advance in the past week that hard-line chief of staff Ta Mok has two tanks, not one as had been believed. Meas Sophea on Thursday confirmed that neither tank had been destroyed as of Thursday. The government sent anti-tank ammunition to the front line on Tuesday.
While Kao Thy described fighting on Thursday as “skirmishing,” soldiers who returned from the front line on Thursday said the fighting was heavy.
Yan Sarin, 32, a Division 4 soldier whose lower right leg was blown off by a land mine Thursday morning, said waves of government troops are being sent up into the heavily forested mountains.
He stepped on a land mine while scaling the mountains with a platoon of soldiers in support of the frontline troops. His mangled lower leg was still awaiting amputation late Thursday afternoon at the Siem Reap Military Hospital.
The Siem Reap Military Hospital has been filling up with soldiers suffering from shrapnel injuries, land mine injuries and malaria.
Soldiers at the hospital and Siem Reap Military Airport staff reported more than 10 newly injured or sick soldiers being ferried by helicopter to Siem Reap for treatment Thursday afternoon. Twenty injured soldiers were flown in Tuesday.
Kao Thy estimated that approximately 300 hard-liners have fanned out in mountain-top positions across the Mountain 200 area. Last month he estimated that as many as 1,500 anti-government troops, with reinforcements from Funcinpec positions 60 km to the west, could be resisting RCAF advances.
One Asian diplomat said Thursday that a “drawn-out, low-intensity” battle looms for the RCAF. He noted the government’s inability to take the village of O’Smach, which has been held since last July by resistance forces.