Siem Reap town – A roadside explosion rocked this quaint provincial capital at about 9:15 am, just as the motorcades carrying the new parliamentary members had begun pulling up to the royal residence of King Norodom Sihanouk.
Someone joked about careless bodyguards playing with grenades. But minutes later, reality set in: About 500 meters up the town’s central road a propelled explosive had missed the convoy and struck a house, killing a 15-year-old boy and injuring three family members.
Four B-40 rockets had been rigged together, concealed on a platform in the brush near the roadside, apparently detonated by remote control. A Cambodian Mines Action Center official said the four rockets were connected to go off simultaneously, but for whatever reason—perhaps a heavy early-morning rain—only one launched.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen described the incident as an attempt on his life.
“I think if the opposition leaders do not instruct their forces to stop activities which threaten my life, they would die with the most severe suffering,’’ the CPP vice president told reporters. “For a snake, if we don’t hit it on the head, it can still move and bite back, so we must hit it on the head, not its tail.’’
National Police Director-General Hok Lundy, a top CPP official, accused the opposition of carrying out the attack. “This explosion is terrorism and they want to assassinate Samdech Hun Sen,” he said later at Angkor Wat.
Accounts of the incident from some witnesses conflicted with the description offered by top government officials.
Police officials at the scene said the rocket barely missed a vehicle in the CPP convoy.
Within 45 minutes of the attack, senior government officials on the scene relayed their version of events to reporters: The rocket had whizzed just a meter in front of the Land Cruiser occupied by Hun Sen himself.
Prak Sokhonn, a senior adviser to Hun Sen, said he had talked to a bodyguard who had been in Hun Sen’s vehicle and personally saw the rocket pass by.
“There was no bullet-proof glass on Hun Sen’s car,” Prak Sokhonn said as CMAC officials reviewed evidence at the scene.
But other accounts had the rocket exploding near the back of the CPP convoy, at least several hundred meters from Hun Sen. Several witnesses put Hun Sen inside the royal compound at the time of the blast.
Nhim Sela, deputy chief of provincial military police, said his vehicle was near the end of the CPP motorcade when he saw the explosion take place just a few cars ahead.
“Behind me were the convoys of Prince [Norodom] Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy,” Nhim Sela said. Hun Sen, he said, was at the front of the motorcade and by then probably near the King’s villa.
Several eyewitnesses said they saw a number of cars in the motorcade pass before the explosion, but couldn’t say exactly who were in the vehicles near the explosion.
The rocket hit a house at street level and killed Sor Chanrithy, 15. He apparently died instantly.
His father Sor Chantry, 45, a businessman, was seriously injured by shrapnel in the leg, hospital officials said. So Chandevy, 10, his daughter, was slightly injured. Seriously injured with shrapnel wounds in the chest was Ngin Chanrity, 12, a relative.
A grieving Ngin Chancresna, the 40-year-old mother of the dead boy, could manage only a few words at the scene and later at the hospital as she watched over her injured husband, daughter and young brother. “I’m very sad and shook up,” she said.
If the line connecting the explosive had worked, all four rockets would have launched simultaneously, said Jean Pierre Billaut, a top CMAC official in Siem Reap.
Chao Donn, a military police colonel, said security had been tight along the road—especially near Hun Sen’s hotel several kilometers up the road. But he said security officials were looking for suspicious people, not rockets hidden in the brush.
The government later issued a statement condemning the attack and asking authorities to investigate, find the masterminds and send them to court.
King Sihanouk and Thailand separately condemned the violence, but neither described it as an assassination attempt.
“I seriously condemn the criminal who carried out the atrocity this morning,” King Sihanouk said, adding that he expressed his sympathy to those who were “unfairly” killed and injured.
Prince Ranariddh condemned the violence “in the strongest words possible.” And Sam Rainsy said the one who planned the attack “has to be crazy to destroy the democratic process we have worked so hard for.”
When asked if he thought he would be accused of masterminding the attack, Sam Rainsy said: “No one would believe it.”
Said one Western diplomat: “The three main suspects would be [resistance commander] Nhiek Bun Chhay, [Khmer Rouge strongman] Ta Mok, and Hun Sen. But I wouldn’t want to take a guess as to which one.”
Another Western diplomat said he is unconvinced the incident was meant to harm the second prime minister. “If this was a real assassination attempt, he should fire his whole security detail,” he said. “No head of state in the world would allow an attack like this in a secured area, along a short route between a hotel and a scheduled meeting, during a tense political time.”
(Additional reporting by Kay Johnson, Deutsche Press-Agentur, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse)
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