Senior military officials claimed Thursday that the longtime Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng had fallen under the control of rebellious defectors.
However, others, including diplomats and Thai military sources, dismissed the government reports as sensational and misleading.
Deputy Chief of General Staff Pol Saroeun said Khmer Rouge defectors newly loyal to the government and RCAF troops have gained an upper hand in the mountainous northern Cambodia region over the past two weeks through force and persuasion.
Defense co-Minister Tea Banh said skirmishes continued Thursday.
Tea Banh claimed new defectors and RCAF troops are patrolling Anlong Veng searching for the guerrilla leadership, including Pol Pot, Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.
“They have fled and we don’t know their whereabouts,” Tea Banh said.
Five divisions of guerrilla soldiers totaling 1,545 fighters, and more than 4,000 civilians defected to the government at Anlong Veng on Thursday, according to a statement broadcast on Bayon Radio, a CPP-affiliated station.
“We are appealing to the rest of the cadre, fighters and people who are under the pressure of the hard-line murderers Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea to seek ways to free themselves soon,” said the statement, which an announcer said was written Thursday in Anlong Veng by Keo Pourk, the “representative” of the defectors.
Keo Pourk said he wanted to integrate into mainstream society as the Khmer Rouge factions in Pailin and Phnom Malai did in 1996, according to the statement.
Pol Saroeun hailed the developments as a sign the end of the Khmer Rouge as a military force could be imminent.
But an Asean diplomat said Thursday the government is likely creating a public relations stunt out of a small incident to take attention away from deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is scheduled to return next week after nine months of self-exile.
“It’s difficult to believe all these things,” he said. “It’s only one source. There are no independent sources.”
A Western political observer said the timing was “too perfect” for the CPP leadership. “Only days before Ranariddh returns, and all this disruption with the old Khmer Rouge,” he said.
Thai military officers who monitor the border flatly dismissed the claims, telling Agence France-Presse that only a very small-scale mutiny was under way in Anlong Veng and that few, if any, of the mutineers had defected
“I can assure you that there is no fighting in Anlong Veng,” said a senior officer with the Thai Supreme Command. “There [were defectors] a few days ago in the rank-and-file Khmer Rouge who do not want to fight.”
Another Thai official in Surin province, directly across from Anlong Veng, denied the base had fallen.
“The rumor about the Khmer Rouge having lost a base is part of the propaganda made by Khmer Rouge defectors,” an official with the Suranaree Task Force told AFP.
Cambodian intelligence reports indicated at 2:30 pm Thursday the rebellion climaxed with the destruction of the guerrillas’ clandestine radio station, AFP said.
However, at 6:30 pm the rebels’ regular evening broadcast was heard in Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
“As long as the radio station is broadcasting, then they are still a force,” said a Western military analyst. “It’s a good indicator.”
The Khmer Rouge broadcast repeated stories aired Wednesday assailing “comrades Chung and Keo” for selling their heads to the “Vietnamese communist puppets” in Phnom Penh.
The military analyst said government forces successfully advanced on parts of Anlong Veng
—a swath of territory believed to be home to 40,000 to 50,000 people. He said it was unclear, though, whether the Khmer Rouge leadership had been dislodged from its strongholds.
“The military has been working toward this since the end of December, trying to take advantage of the split in the Khmer Rouge between those commanders with Ta Mok and those with Pol Pot,” he said. “This is not a big offensive, but it seems to be effective.”
He explained former Khmer Rouge soldiers are providing tactical advice to government units.
Pol Saroeun said defections have taken place in the past week not only at Anlong Veng, but in nearby Preah Vihear province to the east and also in western Cambodia at Samlot.
“This is the plan of the government, to have the defections at the same time,” Pol Saroeun said.
He also claimed that Funcinpec military commanders General Kieng Savorn and Touch Kim Srun, both previously based in Kompong Som, were among 300 soldiers to leave the resistance at Samlot in southern Battambang province on Wednesday.
Pol Saroeun maintained the rebels’ infighting in Anlong Veng and the defections follow three months of government infiltration and propaganda aimed at splitting the notorious armed force.
If the announced Anlong Veng defections are true, it would represent the largest rebel defection to the government since thousands changed sides in western Cambodia in mid and late 1996.
Chea Saran, chief of operations for RCAF general staff, said the joint operation against Anlong Veng with defected rebel units and government soldiers began six days ago.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)