Artillery, mortars and grenades thundered Friday on the Cambodian border, where forces backing ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh were putting up surprising resistance to coup leader Hun Sen’s larger, better-equipped army.
Thai military officers near the border said Hun Sen’s troops have suffered heavy casualties in the week’s seesaw battle for the far northern village of O’Smach, the last stronghold of the ousted prince’s supporters.
Away from the front lines, a Hun Sen opponent who had been in hiding since the strongman’s bloody July 5-6 coup fled to Malaysia on Friday in an escape aided by the United States.
Hun Sen’s forces pushed the forces of his ousted co-premier almost to the Thai border in the weeks after the coup, and on Aug. 14 Hun Sen ordered his troops to take the opposition’s last outpost within a day.
But O’Smach has proven a tough objective, shielded by a mountain heavily strewn with mines by Ranariddh’s forces and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas fighting alongside them.
Thai military commander Col. Thawatchai Samutsakorn, who has closely monitored the fighting, said he thought that Ranariddh’s forces would try to hold the area until elections next year.
Speaking at a news conference, Thawatchai said the rough terrain favored the defenders and the land mines that they had planted would deter attackers.
Gen. Nhek Bunchhay, Ranariddh’s top commander, has said his men will resort to guerrilla warfare if O’Smach falls. His forces number about 2,000, compared to 3,000 to 7,000 for Hun Sen.
Friday’s fighting was contradictory to claims made by Cambodia’s co-defense ministers, Tea Banh and Tea Chamrath, at news conference in Bangkok after meeting Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.
Tea Banh gave reporters a “100 percent guarantee there is no more fighting.”
The ministers insisted stability had returned to Cambodia and claimed it was safe for refugees to return. The Thai prime minister said that was welcome news but added no civilians would be forced home.
Thai officials opened the border to Cambodian civilians from O’Smach earlier this week and said 35,000 had crossed. Authorities revised the number Friday to 22,000.
In addition, about 2,500 refugees from the fighting have gathered in Drat in the south of Thailand, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.
Hun Sen’s ministers said soldiers and civil servants could return to Cambodia and get their old jobs back, except for Ranariddh and Nhek Bunchhay, who were accused of “terrorism.”
Few were likely to do so. After the coup, U.N. human rights investigators said Hun Sen’s forces killed 40 of his opponents in summary executions, a charge Hun Sen has denied.
One missing Hun Sen opponent who had been feared dead emerged Friday and fled the country. Looking tired and drawn after seven weeks in hiding, Pen Sovann departed from Phnom Penh for Malaysia en route to a third country.
A month before the takeover, Pen Sovann had said he was establishing a new political party to contest the May 1998 general election and harshly denounced Hun Sen.
Pen Sovann said he had been kept in “many, many” different locations since the coup. He was helped by the U.N. human rights center and U.S. officials.
Showing continued concern for his safety, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn escorted Pen Sovann from the airport tarmac onto the plane Friday.