U.S., Australia may provide weapons to Cambodian army to fight Khmer Rouge

May 15, 1994|By New York Times News Service

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The United States and Australia have openly suggested that they may soon begin supplying arms to the struggling Cambodian army because of its recent battlefield defeats at the hands of the Maoist-inspired rebels of the Khmer Rouge.

The arms have been requested by King Norodom Sihanouk, who has warned that the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians in the 1970s, could overrun the country if the national army was not resupplied with weapons and ammunition.

Western diplomats in the region said the plight of the Cambodian army was not as dire as suggested by the king, but they agreed that the army was running short of arms and that its poorly equipped, demoralized soldiers needed training from foreign military advisers.

The diplomats said the arms shipments partly were needed to counter the impact of rogue military commanders in Thailand who, it is widely reported, continue to supply logistical support and sanctuary to the Khmer Rouge along the Thai-Cambodian border. The Cambodian army has no reliable supply line for weapons and ammunition.

On Friday, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, one of the main architects of the United Nations peace effort that resulted in free elections in Cambodia last year, announced that his government was giving "serious consideration" to the arms request from Cambodia.

He said that it was "wholly legitimate" for the Cambodian government "to seek such assistance from the international community in order to maintain the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Only three months ago, the army seemed to have the upper hand against the Khmer Rouge, who signed a peace treaty in 1991 intended to end Cambodia's civil war but later dropped out of the transition and refused to take part in elections a year ago.

In February, the army ousted the Khmer Rouge from Anlong Veng, therebels' northern headquarters, and a month later captured the guerrilla capital, Pailin, a gem-mining city near the Cambodia-Thai border.

But within weeks the Khmer Rouge had taken back both positions and moved close to Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city, creating a panic among its residents.

On Wednesday, Peter Tomsen, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a congressional committee that the United States also was prepared to consider arms shipments to the Cambodian army, but suggested that it was unlikely to act without cooperation from other nations.

Diplomats said that France, Cambodia's former colonial ruler, was among the countries that might be willing to ship arms to Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge continue to be led by Pol Pot, the shadowy figure who directed the "killing fields" of the 1970s. The 'u movement ruled Cambodia from 1975 through 1978, imposing a radical agrarian reorganization of society characterized by summary executions and starvation.

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