July 7, 1997 in Nation/World

Chaos After Coup D’Etat In Cambodia Looting Follows 2 Days Of Gun Battles In Capital

From Wire Reports
 

Dawn broke over a capital city in chaos today as soldiers carrying out a coup d’etat by Cambodia’s Second Prime Minister Hun Sen began looting parts of Phnom Penh.

Army units loyal to First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, who is in France attempting to organize a resistance to Hun Sen’s power play, were holding out in pockets in the western portion of the city.

Although no gunfire was reported as the overnight curfew ended at 6 o’clock this morning, Hun Sen’s troops maintained their siege around the compound of Nhek Bunchhay, Prince Ranariddh’s military chief.

In heavy fighting Sunday, they captured Ranariddh’s political party’s headquarters as well as his home, forcing about 200 of his armed supporters to surrender. White flags were draped along ramparts at the residence.

From France, Ranariddh appealed for support from Cambodians.

“I call on my people that they join me, my party and all other patriotic forces to carry out resistance against Hun Sen and his partisans,” he said Monday.

The violent breakdown of Cambodia’s coalition government marked the final unraveling of an imperfect peace settlement worked out by United Nations negotiators in 1991 to end the country’s long-running civil war.

The deal led to national elections in 1993 won by Ranariddh’s party, but Hun Sen and his followers bullied their way into a coalition government by threatening to continue the violence.

Phone lines remained down and the airport closed today as Hun Sen’s soldiers and police engaged in a spree of looting, making off with cars, televisions, motorbikes and valuables from homes in the airport area.

Mortar, rocket and machine-gun fire Sunday sent residents streaming out of Phnom Penh by foot, bicycle and motorbike.

The weekend’s battles erupted after weeks of rising tensions and isolated clashes. Over national radio, Hun Sen denied he was leading a coup attempt. Hun Sen says his action was a preemptive move against what he called a plot by Ranariddh to attack his forces using disaffected Khmer Rouge rebels.

“This is not a political dispute between one party and another, nor is it a coup d’etat or a civil war like Ranariddh the traitor has declared,” Hun Sen said.

Hun Sen, who holds the military upper hand in the capital, said Prince Ranariddh’s royalist party could rejoin the nowshattered coalition government - but said he would refuse to share power with Ranariddh.

Ranariddh said he fled Cambodia for France on Friday after hearing about the impending coup.

“I call on my people that they join me, my party and all other patriotic forces to carry out resistance against Hun Sen and his partisans,” he said today.

At least nine people have been killed since Hun Sen launched his putsch Saturday, according to hospital officials and diplomats. Another 50 people have been seriously wounded.

Away from the capital, fighting was reported the northwestern provinces of Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap.

In Washington, the State Department said the embassy was in contact with the approximately 1,200 Americans and all were reported safe Sunday. No evacuation has been ordered yet, and the State Department urged the Cambodian rivals “to resolve any differences by peaceful means.”

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s ailing King Norodom Sihanouk appealed for peace, calling on Hun Sen and his son, Ranariddh, to come to Beijing for peace talks.

“I beg to request all my children … and soldiers and police of both sides to have pity for the nation,” Sihanouk said in a statement from China, where he is undergoing medical treatments.

Several diplomats and political analysts said the open break in the governing coalition could drive the royalist party and the Khmer Rouge together in opposition to Hun Sen.

That would in effect restore an alliance in which the two groups fought Hun Sen’s Vietnamese-backed government for a decade until a peace accord in 1991 set the stage for the current coalition government. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and were responsible for deaths that numbered nearly two million.

Cambodia is often touted as a U.N. “success story” after a multibillion-dollar peacekeeping operation led to elections in 1993 and an unlikely alliance of the two onetime enemies, Ranariddh and Hun Sen. But they kept separate armies and have periodically accused each other of violating the terms of the truce that forced them into the “cohabitation.”

Ranariddh’s royalist party won the elections, but was forced to allow Hun Sen to share power as an equal to avoid another bloody civil war. Since then, the co-prime ministers have been trying to build up their armies and arsenals in advance of the next elections in 1998 - and they have been relying on defectors from the brutal Khmer Rouge to supplement their armed strength.

This weekend’s fighting may have been triggered by recent reports from Ranariddh’s camp that the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, had been arrested by his own men and was being held in a jungle redoubt in Anlong Veng, in northern Cambodia. The capture of Pol Pot may have cleared the way for large numbers of Khmer Rouge guerrillas to defect and join Ranariddh’s outnumbered forces, and Hun Sen may have been trying to launch a pre-emptive strike before the prince’s army could be strengthened by the new recruits.

Khmer Rouge spokesman and de facto leader Khieu Samphan announced Sunday that he has broken with Pol Pot and now recognizes the Cambodian constitution - the first step to his full participation in politics. Hun Sen may have feared that Khieu Samphan would take with him hundreds of fresh new troops to bolster Ranariddh’s forces.

In the worst case, he said, the country could divide along geographic lines, with Hun Sen controlling the provinces east of the Mekong River and the royalists along with the Khmer Rouge controlling the west.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: VOICES AMID CHAOS Mother, infant racing to find refuge Meas Vanna was among the hundreds in Phnom Penh who dodged mortars and automatic weapons fire, racing to the mud flats of the Tonle Sap River to board rickety ferries. They lined up waiting to reach an island of restaurants and nightclubs where the capital’s elite often spend the evening. Vanna had a small motorcycle, three bags of essentials and her 4-month-old baby. “A shell hit one of the homes next to mine and it caught fire,” the 32-year-old woman said. “I don’t know who is right and wrong, so I don’t know who to be angry with.”

Front-line fears A young soldier on the front line near Ranariddh’s house - wearing a strip of white cloth on his uniform that identified him as a member of Hun Sen’s forces - said he was not eager to fight. “It’s not only you civilians who are trembling,” he said. “I’m trembling too.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: VOICES AMID CHAOS Mother, infant racing to find refuge Meas Vanna was among the hundreds in Phnom Penh who dodged mortars and automatic weapons fire, racing to the mud flats of the Tonle Sap River to board rickety ferries. They lined up waiting to reach an island of restaurants and nightclubs where the capital’s elite often spend the evening. Vanna had a small motorcycle, three bags of essentials and her 4-month-old baby. “A shell hit one of the homes next to mine and it caught fire,” the 32-year-old woman said. “I don’t know who is right and wrong, so I don’t know who to be angry with.”

Front-line fears A young soldier on the front line near Ranariddh’s house - wearing a strip of white cloth on his uniform that identified him as a member of Hun Sen’s forces - said he was not eager to fight. “It’s not only you civilians who are trembling,” he said. “I’m trembling too.”


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