Wednesday, July 23, 2008

THE ATTACK ON PHUM BOVEL

Following an article titled ‘Massacre in the Tonle Sap’ that I had posted a earlier, I now wish to post another article regarding the Malaysian Army contingent experience in Cambodia on UN peacekeeping duties .

There were three major incidences worthy of note, that were life threatening to our soldiers deployed in the frontline areas, in the Battambang province. For this posting, I would like to describe the first incident that occurred in the district of Phum Bovel.

It was in the early morning of December 9th, 1992, at D Company’s location at Phum Bovel, where the company came under mortar attack from Khmer Rouge’s known positions at Ta Cot and Deisar. A day before, there were already rumours of the attack, and this had caused villages nearby to evacuate the surrounding area.

At around 5.45 am that fateful day, the Khmer Rouge launched its first mortar attack which fell close to the company’s base camp. This caused the soldiers who had awoken some time earlier to scurry to safety at the nearby town. Subsequent shells fell into the base camp, but none scored a direct hit at the wooden accommodation blocks of the soldiers.

One would wonder why had the soldiers vacated their base camp for the safety of the town, and not bunkered themselves to defend the base camp? The reason was because, firstly, the mission was one of peacekeeping, and the soldiers are not to view the warring Cambodian factions as their enemy. Hence, in whatever they do, they ought to be seen as being defensive. Having to construct bunkers, observation post, barb wire perimeter fence and heavy machine gun post around the base, would be seen by the Cambodians as being offensive. This was exactly what the Dutch Army contingent did, that angered the locals.

Secondly, even if the soldiers had taken all of the above defensive measures, and defended the base, still there is nothing that the soldiers could do to retaliate the mortar shelling, because the company was not equipped with indirect fire weapons, such as mortars or artillery guns. So why then do they need to defend the base camp, and to be targeted upon like ‘shooting ducks’?

The impact of the mortar shelling, caused some damages to the wooden panels of some of the buildings. A shell which dropped close to the ammunition dump failed to explode, and this saved the company of untoward casualties to the soldiers . In all, a total of 15 mortar shells were accounted.

Soon after the attack, the Cambodian government forces which was located in proximity to D Company, launched a series of counter attacks into Khmer Rouge held areas capturing two locations i.e. Phum Ta Hen and Pong Ro. However, the counter attack forces did not proceed further to capture Ta Cot and Deisar, for unknown reason.

Upon being informed of the attack, I hastily proceeded to Phum Bovel, only to find the soldiers huddled in groups in the town area; a sight reminiscing that of Cambodian returnees that we had first witnessed, during their repatriation into Cambodia, from the Thai-Cambodia border.

Despite their ordeal, the soldiers did not display any signs of fear or trauma, but remained high spirited and unscathed. This I thought, was the hallmark of a highly trained and motivated soldiers, for which Malaysians ought to be extremely proud off.

4 comments:

maurice said...

I think it would be extremely difficult to use your indirect fire weapons in a place like Cambodia due to the difficulties of getting an accurate grid location of the Khmer Rouge's mortar location and the need to avoid landing your mortar shells/artillery projectiles on Cambodian villages dotting the countryside.I assumed a stringent rules of engagement were enforced by the UN on all participating troops.

Nowadays, UN/NATO peace-enforcement operations are organized for serious military operations.In places like Afghanistan, troops are supported by 155mm artillery guns complete with mortar locating radars.The troops there are also testing new artillery rounds called EXCALIBUR which is GPS guided, capable of hitting the target with the first round.These projectiles are not cheap but it achieved the desired results.

ArshadRaji said...

Dear Maurice,

Even if we had the indirect fire weapons, I will not allow them to use it, for the exact reason that you had mentioned i.e. dotting villagers all over the countryside. I would have failed in my responsibility, if I had killed an innocent civilian during a fire fight.
Anyway, thanks for the comments.

captazhar said...

I can still recall the incident at Ph Bavel quite vividly, Mej Johnson (deceased) was the OC Delta Coy there and they were fortunate to have escaped the barrage unscathed. The first few mortar rounds fell on the local CPAF commander's house (causing several casualties) and some rounds even damaged a vital bridge there.

The following rounds that hit our compound were timed air bursts and quite a lot of buildings were holed seriously. We provided first aid to several CPAF soldiers who were hurt on their backs due to shrapnel hitting them as they lay down on the ground without overhead protection. It was not a pleasant sight.

And even if we had constructed OHP for our slit trenches, it would have been insufficient cover as our doctrine of a layer of soil up to 18 inches thick atop the corrugated metal cover is simply not enough to withstand 120mm mortar rounds. The damage seen at the CPAF commander's house showed that even tree trunks of up to 2 feet in diameter is easily penetrated.

I followed the recovery team back into our compound to recover whatever that we could during a lull in the fighting and yes, I was also responsible for smashing the side window of a UN pickup that was left locked in our compound with the keys in the ignition. We reported that the window was damaged in the shelling, but we did not lose the truck to the looters.

The looters who came some time after we abandoned the camp as the fighting intensified, and I understand that most of the looters were CPAF troops who were on their way to the front lines. Many of them were involved in the fighting dressed in MALBATT uniforms and I think this point was raised in the MMG meeting. At least, the local Cambodians were talking about MALBATT troops fighting in the front lines to drive the KR away.

And for maurice,

MALBATT was armed with only individual weapons like automatics, carbines and rifles. The only support weapon that we were armed with was the manually sighted, hand held 60mm mortar but most of the ammunition consists of flares and smoke rounds and only a few HE. There was nothing that we had to come up against anything even lightly armoured, not even the BRDM scout vehicle.

However, I managed to acquire a few B41 RPG launchers with both the HE and HEAT rounds from the local military and even trained the troops in the companies on its utilization. Fortunately, there was no need to fire it in anger.

Initially, we were deployed without even our helmets, using only the blue beret or the base ball caps. However as the situation on the ground deteriorated, some helmets and bullet proof vests were provided. None of our vehicles were armoured and the only defences that we could build were slit trenches with some sand bags. The major role that MALBATT played was to facilitate the Paris Accords that was ratified by all the warring parties and this fact was continuously drilled into both our own troops as well as all the local military commanders and the members of the MMG.

maurice said...

Dear Captazhar,

Thank you for sharing your experience.You are right,the 18 inches OHP is simply not enough.The French in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu had to increase their OHP to at least one metre in order to protect themselves from the mortar and artillery bombardments of Gen Giap's forces from the surrounding hills.

I share the difficulties you faced in the Cambodian UN peace-keeping operations.ArshaRaji is right when he says he would have failed in his responsibility, if he had killed an innocent civilian during a fire fight. UN peacekeeping operation is always about avoiding taking any human life and saving the local population.It demands the best out of the UN peace-keeping forces.I myself had faced almost similar circumstances as an unarmed UN Military Observer in one lawless country.