Wheeling carts and herding chickens, pigs and cows, families began their exodus from the threatened village of O'Smach in the dead of night. The flood of people and animals across the border went on into the early hours of today.
The evacuation came after Hun Sen's troops were seen on the outskirts of O'Smach, five miles from the border town of Chong Chom Pass, Cambodian and Thai officials said.
The refugees' flight presaged what refugees and Thai officials expected would be an all-out fight later today for O'Smach, the last stronghold of supporters of Hun Sen's ousted rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
An estimated 30,000 people had massed at O'Smach for weeks, desperate to escape the violence accompanying Hun Sen's bloody 5-6 July ouster of Prince Ranariddh. With the prince's supporters outgunned and outmanned, the refugees have been preparing to cross the border since Friday, when shelling by Hun Sen's troops became closer and more frequent. Thailand had said it would admit the refugees if their lives were in immediate danger in the fighting.
By this morning, only soldiers providing security for the exodus could be seen in O'Smach. The last refugees were making their way through the border checkpoint and into a temporary camp at Khueng Hoeichueng, a mile inside Thailand.
About 100 Thai soldiers escorted the refugees, shining lights for people to make their way in. Refugees panicked briefly yesterday afternoon when word reached the civilians that Hun Sen's forces had somehow managed to scale the mountain that served as their last line of defence, and were at the edge of the village. Prince Ranariddh's forces had called the mountain impregnable, saying it was heavily mined and booby trapped.
Heavy shelling was also heard west of the village, raising fears of fierce fighting today after the usual nighttime break in hostilities. At that point, leaders in the village asked for and got permission to take the refugees into Thailand.
The exodus itself went peacefully. The Cambodian families made their way quietly by foot to their new camp, carrying belongings that had been packed for days.Tiny children helped push their families' wooden carts. The tired among them sat by the side of the narrow border road briefly for a rest.
Aad Yo, 60, waited by the side of the road with a broken cart, hoping for a friend to come by with a new one. "I was very afraid of Hun Sen, afraid that [Ranariddh's] soldiers would shoot and I would be in the middle," he said. "I was afraid to get hit by accident. I could not stay anymore."
After one night in the temporary camp, the refugees are to move to a better site four miles away. O'Smach apparently remained in the hands of troops loyal to Prince Ranariddh. Thai military officers said only one to two miles separated the enemy forces - and they, too, expected heavy fighting later today.
In Bangkok, an exiled member of Cambodia's Parliament said O'Smach remained in the hands of Prince Ranariddh's supporters. The legislator, Ahmed Yahya, said a commander loyal to the prince, General Khan Savoeun, had dismissed a claim from Hun Sen's side that its forces were within one mile of the village.