The Vietnamese offensive in Kampuchea (Cambodia) is continuing its bloody course, with intense fighting over one guerrilla camp and menacing troop movements around another. The bitterest fighting is taking place at Nong Samet, the largest camp of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. The KPNLF is the larger noncommunist member of the tripartite Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which opposes the Vietnamese-backed government of Kampuchea.
A more symbolic battle may soon erupt at Ampil, the KPNLF headquarters six miles north of Nong Samet.
Nong Samet was seized by the Vietnamese on Christmas Day. As of last night the camp, now mostly destroyed, was still being shelled by Vietnamese 130-mm and 105-mm artillery.
The KPNLF admits to more than 40 dead and more than 200 wounded; other observers feel the real figure is considerably higher. KPNLF guerrillas also claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on the Vietnamese, including a 40-person medical team which was reportedly wiped out a few days ago.
Vietnamese forces opposite Ampil are said to have been reinforced in the last few days. ``They can attack us at any moment,'' a senior KPNLF spokesman said yesterday afternoon.
Vietnamese forces are reportedly pulling back -- or are being pushed back -- from Nong Samet. Hanoi's strategy, however, is probably not to hold the camp permanently, but to prevent the KPNLF from reoccupying it by destroying the structures and keeping the camp within heavy artillery range.
The battle for Ampil, on the other hand, will probably have great symbolic importance for both sides. The KPNLF will want to regain lost credibility with a strong defense. The Vietnamese will want to take the camp as quickly as possible, thus underlining their claim that the KPNLF is a paper tiger.
The KPNLF has built up the defenses around Ampil. It has Chinese-supplied 12.7-mm antiaircraft guns; there has been considerable speculation that the Vietnamese will use helicopter gunships against the border bases this year.
(Thai sources claimed this week that 14 Soviet MIG-23s have been deployed at the Vietnamese base of Cam Ranh Bay. Western analysts here, however, say that the planes appear to be under the control of the Soviets, not of the Vietnamese Air Force. They are unlikely to be deployed in Kampuchea.)
Even the capture of Ampil would probably not mean the end of the KPNLF. The support given to the guerrillas by noncommunist countries -- notably the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States -- apparently has little to do with the actual performance of the guerrillas.
The Vietnamese, however, seem satisfied with the way things have gone so far. On Dec. 22 they promoted Le Duc Anh, the officer in charge of Kampuchean operations and a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party Politburo, to full general -- the highest rank in the armed forces. Le Trong Tan, the chief of general staff, was also promoted to full general.