Cambodia slips towards civil war

Fighting rages across Phnom Penh as Hun Sen moves to oust rival
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The Independent Online
Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, reverberated to the pounding of rocket and mortar fire last night as the country was plunged into the prospect of a bloody coup d'etat.

As rival army factions loyal to the nation's two vying prime ministers battled in a second day of intense street fighting, corpses were left strewn across the roads: 15 people have been confirmed dead and more than 50 injured. But casualties are likely to be far higher.

Air traffic and telecommunication links have been severed and all roads into Phnom Penh blocked as columns of tanks under the command of Hun Sen, the country's powerful "second" prime minister, rumbled through the deserted streets.

During the day Hun Sen's forces captured the headquarters of first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh's Funcinpec party and the prince's residence, both in the heart of Phnom Penh. Then in a radio broadcast last night Hun Sen declared that his rival was no longer prime minister, though he claimed he did not want the job. "The position is in Funcinpec's quota so let Funcinpec adopt a political figure," he said.

By late in the day, Ranariddh's forces still held ground to the west of the city and their Tang Krasang military base near the airport.

Prince Ranariddh's exact whereabouts were not known, but aides in Phnom Penh said he had left the country on Friday on the eve of the fighting and was in France. At nightfall yesterday, palls of black smoke from destroyed petrol stations were billowing over the city and crackling gunfire was heard, punctuated with the dull thud of incoming shells. Mortar bombs rained down on the French Embassy, badly damaging its compound.

Thousands of people abandoned their homes for the relative safety of the countryside, carrying what little belongings they could manage on bicycles and carts. Many have been escaping the city by boat. Military officials in Thailand say their information is that a coup has taken place: they are preparing three military transport planes to evacuate Thai nationals once the situation has stabilised.

Hun Sen denies staging a military takeover. "The armed confrontation is not a coup, or an attack by one political party against another political party," Hun Sen assured Cambodians in last night's broadcast. But simmering tensions between Cambodia's co-premiers has been threatening to plunge the country into renewed civil war for more than a year.

Divided over most issues, the two are currently locked in a dangerous political stand-off over plans to induct defecting Khmer Rouge guerrillas into the government army, and to allow the reviled leaders of the movement - with the exception of the hated Pol Pot - back into politics.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who collaborated with the Vietnamese to oust the genocidal movement in 1979, remains a bete noire to members of the group. He opposes their integration, fearing that their well-trained and heavily armed fighters would join army ranks loyal to Prince Ranariddh, a former Khmer Rouge ally, and threaten his military superiority.

Since the 1993 elections, in which Prince Ranariddh was returned to power, Cambodia has been in political limbo. Hun Sen, wielding considerable military muscle, was the loser at the ballot box. But to appease his Cambodian People's Party, he was offered a co-premiership in an uneasy coalition. The next elections, after which only one prime minister can assume office, are due next year. Both men have been jostling for advantage in the tense and frequently violent build-up to the polls.

Last month, amid reports that a deal had been struck between the Khmer Rouge leadership and Prince Ranariddh, fighting between rival government factions erupted on the Phnom Penh streets. But the latest fighting is both more prolonged and severe, raising fears that Cambodia has finally stepped over the edge of peace into war.

A 60-strong group of expatriates, led by the Australian military attache and including several Britons, crossed over into Thailand by land last night.