Vietnamese Pour Heavy Fire on Guerrillas
ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand (AP) _ Vietnamese gunners poured withering shell fire on Khmer Rouge forces Wednesday and sent in ground forces behind the barrage to surround the most important guerrilla stronghold in western Cambodia, Thai military officers reported.
Panicky civilians fled every major Khmer Rouge camp in the area when Vietnam’s artillery opened up along a 40-mile stretch south of here, Thai and Western sources said.
Thai officers said the new shelling began before dawn Wednesday, and up to 3,000 rounds pounded the guerrilla-held Phnom Malai area during the next 12 hours.
They said 2,000 Vietnamese troops, some less than four miles from Phnom Malai, advanced despite mortar and recoilless gun fire from guerrillas backed against the Thai border.
With recent reinforcements, more than 10,000 Hanoi troops were available for a major ground assault against the Phnom Malai stronghold 14 miles south of this key border town, and against the Khao Din stronghold another eight miles south, the sources said.
A senior international aid official said 35,000 civilians had fled across the Thai border since the heavy bombardment began at dawn Tuesday, and 200,000 since the Vietnamese launched their offensive in the mountain jungles three months ago.
Another 30,000 have been in Thailand since abandoning their camp last April.
The Khmer Rouge is one of three guerrilla groups allied against the six- year-old Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The other two are non-communist and one is led by the former Cambodian head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The Thai regional commander said in Bangkok: ″Right now the Vietnamese have surrounded the Khmer Rouge base at Phnom Malai and (the nearby camp) at Phum Thmei, after having moved a large number of artillery pieces and tanks into the area.
″If the Vietnamese attack this area, Thailand will be affected, since it is very close to Thailand,″ said Maj. Gen. Salya Sriphen, commander of the Eastern (border) Field Force.
The Thai army has called a full alert along the border just south of Aranyaprathet and evacuated thousands of border village residents to the interior. The deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman, Prachyadavi Tavedikul, said Thailand would protest at the United Nations about Vietnamese cross-border shelling Tuesday and Wednesday that killed three Thai villagers and wounded four.
After overrunning camps of another guerrilla group, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, Vietnam has targeted the Khmer Rouge, veteran fighters who have roamed the Cambodian countryside for years. The Khmer Rouge is strongest in western Battambang, Pursat, and Koh Kong provinces south of Aranyaprathet.
Officers of the Eastern Field Force estimate that about 4,000 guerrillas are defending the Phnom Malai headquarters, lodged in the mountains of Battambang and jutting like a tooth into Thailand.
A senior Thai navy officer said Wednesday the Vietnamese had opened another front in Koh Kong, sending a constant stream of artillery rounds into Khmer Rouge camps. He said there had been heavy fighting since last Friday, when about 2,000 Vietnamese troops assaulted a guerrilla base opposite Thailand’s Chamrark village. More than 5,000 Cambodian civilians fled into Thailand, he said.
″Unlike previous years, Vietnam is not stocking up shells. They’ve been firing them all during the dry season. That means they’re aiming for a big attack,″ the officer said in a telephone interview.
No reliable casualty reports were available. An official of the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had evacuated eight Cambodians wounded in fighting in the Khao Din area.
The Khmer Rouge usually treats its own wounded, but the Khao Din camp hospital was reportedly seized by the Vietnamese, the Red Cross official said.
On the Phnom Malai battlefields, Thai officers said the Vietnamese had penetrated to within 10 miles of the stronghold from the southeast, less than four miles from the south and the same distance from the east. They said Tuesday’s shelling cleared guerrilla outposts and forced the Khmer Rouge to disperse to nearby hilltops.