Bangkok — Nearly 200 vessels carrying Vietnamese soldiers sailed past Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh on their way home yesterday as part of a major troop withdrawal, the official Cambodian news agency reported. The SPK agency said about 10,000 people, including Cambodian Communist Party officials and military officers, lined the banks of the Mekong River to bid farewell to soldiers of Division 339.
The fleet then sailed southward for the 70-mile journey to the border of southern Vietnam. A large group of foreign journalists invited to watch the pullout followed in helicopters.
Cambodian officials said 18,000 soldiers from six Army divisions would return to Vietnam by river and road over the next few days.
The largest guerrilla group, the Khmer Rouge, called the movements mere troop rotations and said Vietnam had sent in fresh units by land and sea.
The departing soldiers are among the 50,000 troops that Vietnam says are being sent home this year in its seventh annual partial withdrawal from Cambodia.
Vietnam claims to have pulled out 32,000 troops already this year, and 18,000 more are to leave by land and water in a week-long transfer ending Wednesday. Some Western diplomats in Bangkok say they believe only 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers have left this year.
The soldiers have been fighting a largely stalemated war against Cambodian guerrillas since massive Vietnamese divisions invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978 and installed the pro-Vietnamese government of President Heng Samrin.
Vietnam says it will withdraw by 1990 the 50,000 troops that it says will remain after this week's pullout, leaving the fighting to Heng Samrin's forces. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen said Friday that all Vietnamese military and civilian advisers have already left his country.
``This will not affect the balance of forces on the battlefield due to our Cambodian troops, who are in control of all areas from which the Vietnamese have withdrawn,'' he told a news conference.
The Khmer Rouge said Vietnamese soldiers, not those of the Cambodian government, are engaged in ``tense, continuous fighting'' in the interior and along the western border with Thailand.