Tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through Phnom Penh’s streets today on the second day of an apparent coup attempt by one of Cambodia’s two feuding co-premiers. Residents awoke to the sound of shelling and gunfire in the northwest of the capital.
By midmorning, telephone communications with Phnom Penh appeared to have been cut. Radio and television stations continuously played a taped speech by the apparent coup leader, Sencond Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Rival forces of Hun Sen and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh opened fire with rockets, artillery and small arms as soon as dawn ended an all-night curfew.
Shortly before 8 a.m., a vast plume of black smoke was seen rising over the northwestern part of the city. A fuel storage dump was believed to have been hit, but that could not be immediately confirmed.
In a statement faxed Sunday to news organizations in Phnom Penh, Ranarridh accused his longtime rival of attempting an illegal power grab, and declared he was now the sole rightful ruler of Cambodia.
“Mr. Hun Sen has now placed himself outside the law,” Ranariddh said. “The only government is the one over which I preside.”
Ranariddh has not been seen since he reportedly left Cambodia for France on Friday, however.
Hun Sen and Ranariddh formed a shaky coalition government in 1993 after spending years as enemies on Cambodia’s battlefields in the country’s long civil war.
Weeks of rising tensions and isolated clashes erupted into a bloody mortar and rocket battle in the capital Saturday when Hun Sen’s forces launched an offensive against troops loyal to Ranariddh.
Dozens of rocket and mortar rounds slammed into several areas of Phnom Penh, killing at least four people and wounding 29, hospital and military officials said. A 4-year-boy hit by shrapnel was among the wounded.
The battle in the city came hours after troops loyal to Hun Sen wrested control of a military base near the airport from forces aligned to Ranariddh. Hun Sen’s troops also surrounded a second base near the airport on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
On Sunday, Ranariddh’s top military commander, Nhek Bunchhay, was holed up in the base.
Wearing camouflage fatigues instead of his usual civilian suit, Hun Sen appeared on national television Saturday to accuse Ranariddh of treachery and of preparing for civil war.