Gunmen Storm Cambodian Capital, 7 Dead

More than 40 gunmen stormed government offices in downtown Phnom Penh early today, an attack by “terrorists,” the government said. Seven of the gunmen were killed.

While the government blamed the attack, which left another eight people wounded, on a U.S.-based anti-communist group, officials offered no evidence of who was behind it and the motivation remained unclear.

The early morning assault was the worst violence in the capital since Prime Minister Hun Sen seized power in a July 1997 coup d’etat.

A Well-Organized Effort

Residents said the fighting raged for more than an hour near the Defense Ministry, Council of Ministers office and other buildings. Sunrise showed walls pockmarked with bullet holes and blood on the sidewalks.

“A group of armed terrorists attempted to disturb the capital but our forces reacted and full stability has been restored,” Phnom Penh Gov. Chea Sophara said. He said the attackers appeared to be well-organized, using assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers.

The wounded included seven government police and army personnel and one civilian — a security guard who was hurt by a grenade.

Hun Sen, who was attending a summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore, played down the incident.

“It is the activity of terrorists, this is a terrorist group, no problem, very small,” the prime minister told reporters.

Government Blames U.S. Group

Defense co-Minister Tea Banh blamed the U.S.-based Cambodian Freedom Fighters, but gave no evidence linking the group to the attack.

Hun Sen called on the United States to arrest the alleged leader of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, Chhun Yasith. He accused the group and another, the Khmer Serei, of plotting to overthrow his government.

However, a top adviser to Hun Sen, Om Yentieng, downplayed any speculation the attack was an attempted coup d’etat.

“This was to destroy property, make noise and kill people,” he said — not an effort to take power.

Curious Strategy

Some of the attackers, detained by the military police, said they had been lured to the capital with promises of construction jobs, and then handed weapons and told to attack by men whose identities they did not know. They said they feared they would be killed if they disobeyed.

Brig. Gen. Chhin Chanpor, commander of Phnom Penh military police, said there were between 40 and 50 attackers. He said 22 were arrested, including one of the group’s leaders, and that authorities had identified another leader and were searching for him. He did not release any names.

Officials said some of the attackers escaped.

After 30 years of war, Cambodia has been relatively peaceful since the demise of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement in late 1998.