Responding to both global and local threats of terrorism, the US Embassy here for the second time in a month closed down a number of its offices on Monday and said it would remain closed until the beginning of next year.
But in a fax sent late Monday night, the US Embassy reversed its decision, saying that it would remain open for business and that it knew of “no specific terrorist threat against Americans or American interests in Cambodia.”
The conflicting messages marked what has become an increasingly confusing picture about the possibility of a terrorist attack on an embassy in Phnom Penh.
Early Monday afternoon, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said “credible” reports indicated a threat existed in Cambodia. While other US embassies worldwide are keeping close tabs on threats of international terrorism during the New Year and Ramadan holidays, the ambassador characterized his actions as “unique.”
“An entirely new set of information has come our way…that makes us believe it is appropriate to take some special precautions,” said Wiedemann, ambassador to Cambodia since August.
“As a prudent manager…I’m going to take cautious steps to reduce our vulnerability, which will be reducing the number of people who come to work each day,” he added, noting that the directive did not come from Washington.
On Dec 11, the US State Department issued a statement to US citizens abroad, warning them of potential anti-US violence.
Wiedemann said Monday afternoon that there is a “medium” chance of similar terrorism in Phnom Penh, but no specific threat has been made against the embassy or any of its employees. Yet he cautioned that the move should be taken seriously.
“We get a lot of information that we ignore. In this case, I would not be acting if I didn’t think the source had good information.”
His move echoed a US Embassy shutdown earlier this month, after local news reports suggested international terrorist Osama bin Laden might have allies along the Thai-Cambodian-Lao border.
A Phnom Penh-based newspaper reported last month that bin Laden—who allegedly masterminded the bombings of two US embassies in Africa last year—directed Muslim separatists to assemble along Southeast Asian borders.
Along with US citizens, Russian and Indian nationals allegedly were targeted. But Russian embassy officials said on Monday they were not taking similar precautions as the US, and Indian security workers said they merely were keeping a closer eye on the issue.
While the US Embassy’s closing this week is not directly related to the notorious bin Laden, Wiedemann said “no place is safe to international terrorists.”
One security analyst highlighted the vulnerability of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, citing its proximity to a main road and residential areas.
A number of defense analysts and military officials, however, downplayed any potential threat.
“As far as I have researched, there is no sign that any terrorism will occur,” said Sao Sokha, national commander of Cambodia’s military police.
“I think this is just a psychological war provoked by people with ill-will.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak agreed and said he has seen little real threat of terrorism in the capital city. He said police have been deployed to prevent violence against Cambodians and foreigners based here but so far there’s been “no positive sign” of terrorism.
Along the road near the embassy, truckloads of soldiers could be seen Monday afternoon keeping watch in bullet-proof vests.
Wiedemann suggested the precaution is part of a larger threat of terrorism during the millennium festivities and the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.
Just last week, an Algerian allegedly driving a vehicle containing bomb materials was arrested in the US state of Washington after ferrying in from Canada. Security experts reportedly believe that bin Laden was behind the incident, and borders into the US since have been tightened.
In Phnom Penh, the US Embassy will remain open to US citizens who require emergency services. But staffs will be cut back and visa services shut down until further notice, Wiedemann had said earlier Monday.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Adam Piore)