Phnom Penh offensive threatens peace plan

THE Phnom Penh government has launched a co-ordinated offensive against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, threatening the United Nations peace operation in the country with collapse.

Eric Berman, a spokesman for the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), whose 22,000 civil and military personnel are attempting to monitor a ceasefire and organise elections, said fighting had spread to five of the 11 military districts defined by peacekeeping forces. The main thrust was against the Khmer Rouge's headquarters in the western town of Pailin, in Battambang province, whose gem mines and timber are the movement's main source of revenue. Government forces had been moving on the town for weeks, but had stepped up their efforts on Friday and were believed to be within 12 miles of the town, he said.

Hun Sen's government was conscripting villagers and recently-returned refugees to fight the Khmer Rouge and carry ammunition, said Mr Berman. The UN's military spokesman, Colonel Dick Palk, said that observers had also reported exchanges of artillery, rockets, mortars and small-arms fire in the provinces of Siem Reap, Preah Vihear, Kompong Thom and Kratie. The fighting, the worst since UN troops arrived in Cambodia last March, was 'a significant offensive', which appeared to exceed the right of self-defence contained in the 1991 peace agreement, he said.

Both the Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh signed the agreement, but neither stands to gain from free elections. Pol Pot's movement ruled out participation when it failed to register as a political party by last week's deadline. The present government, which was installed after the 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge from power, is blamed for a wave of political intimidation in the areas under its control. The principal victim is the royalist party, Funcinpec, which appears to have widespread support thanks to its identification with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's former ruler. Unlike the other two factions, it complied with the agreement and demobilised its forces.

Until last week, it appeared that a compromise had been reached under which Prince Sihanouk would be elected president before the national assembly poll being organised by the UN, and would then invite leaders of the Khmer Rouge and the Hun Sen administration to share power with him. The prince rejected the idea at the last minute, however, and the Phnom Penh government now appears to calculate that it has little to lose. If it knocks out the Khmer Rouge, which has isolated itself from the peace process, the UN would be presented with a fait accompli.

UN military analysts believe the movement has no more than 10,000 to 12,000 men, while the government may have 10 times that number. But its press-ganging of civilians shows that its forces are less dedicated than the Khmer Rouge, described by one source as 'far more organised than anyone else in Cambodia'.

With no brief to enforce a ceasefire, the head of Untac, Yasushi Akashi, can only use moral pressure on Mr Hun Sen's government. The fighting takes Cambodia even further from the 'neutral political environment' the UN is supposed to ensure before the elections. Mr Akashi's dilemma is that if he declares this goal impossible, and threatens to cancel the poll, he would be doing just what Phnom Penh wants.

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