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Army Aims to Outfox Khmer Rouge


By Clayton JonesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1989


`TO beat the Khmer Rouge,'' says Cambodian soldier Hem Pham, ``we must act like Khmer Rouge.'' Long months in hostile jungles, bloody ambushes, night spying on peasants, laying booby traps - not to mention lousy food, meager pay, and mosquitoes - these are the rigors needed to match the fire of one of history's most tenacious and nastiest guerrilla forces.

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The Khmer Rouge, the strongest of three resistance groups in Cambodia, are meeting their match with the likes of Hem Pham, a member of an elite unit known as A-3.

Attired in dark brown clothes, the A-3s specially trained commandos are the shock troops for a communist regime in Phnom Penh that stands alone against a guerrilla resistance following an end to Vietnam's decade-long occupation in September.

With peace talks suspended, a test of strength is in full force on the battlefields of Cambodia, as both sides proclaim victories along the border with Thailand.

The A-3 fighters, numbering more than 40,000, are officially called the Armed Forces Reconnaissance Forces. They operate in small units of three to five men, carrying only a flashlight, mosquito net, hammock, food rations, AK-47 rifle, and an occasional B-40 grenade launcher. Most are deployed along the long border with Thailand where the Khmer Rouge and two noncommunist guerrilla groups enter Cambodia from safe havens in Thailand.

Hem Pham is a member of an A-3 unit of about 60 men in a district of Kompong Speu province just an hour's drive southwest of Phnom Penh. His unit's chief target: an estimated 90 Khmer Rouge guerrillas hiding in the province's mountains.

``We wait long weeks in the jungle,'' says Mr. Hem. ``We were chosen for our combat spirit and our strength.''

And, it can be added, their loyalty to the ruling Marxist-Leninist party. Soldiers in Phnom Penh's regular forces often desert or defect amid Cambodia's political confusion. A-3 was established to ensure at least one stable, effective force.

The unit's short-hand name comes from the month it was founded - March - three years ago.

``Our Army is better than the Vietnamese Army at attacking the Khmer Rouge,'' says Toch Yoeun, a top official in Kompong Chhnang province, about 100 miles north of Phnom Penh. ``After all, many of our officers are former Khmer Rouge. We know their tactics.''

A-3 recruits receive three months training in Phnom Penh and in the eastern province of Kompong Cham, near Vietnam, where there is jungle terrain.

``We have to counter guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics,'' says Cham Prasith, an aide to Prime Minister Hun Sen. ``A-3 is more efficient than the regular military. They [the A-3] are in the jungle.''

Many leaders in the present regime, including Hun Sen, defected from the Khmer Rouge in the mid-'70s, and sought Vietnamese help to throw out the Khmer Rouge.

A-3 works to place spies inside Khmer Rouge ranks. ``If a major attack on a city is planned, our spies can inform us almost immediately,'' Hem says. ``The Khmer Rouge are peasants by day, fighters by night. We need good intelligence.''

In nearly 11 years of fighting since the Khmer Rouge were ousted, about 20,000 of Phnom Penh's forces have died, says Prak Sokhonn, deputy editor of the Army newspaper. About half of them died from malaria, he adds.