They bundled the mangled bodies of adults and children into a mass grave today as the Thai military restored peace in this sprawling camp of thatch huts after two days of gun battles.
At least 46 persons were killed and scores of others were injured in the fighting between rival insurgent factions that control this camp of 55,000 Cambodian refugees.
The fighting was broken off when Thai jets and tanks staged a show of force yesterday. Today, thousands of refugees trekked back to the camp, wtih their possessions loaded on ox-carts and bicycles or slung from poles along their shoulders.
According to Thai military sources, the gun battles broke out among factions of the "National Liberation Movement of Cambodia," one of the anticommunist Khmer Serei groups that control Camp 204. It involved an apparent attempt to overthrow camp commander Van Saren by one of his lieutenants.
Relief workers said there was mounting resentment in recent weeks over Van Saren's despotic rule. He was believed to have been involved in profiteering by trading in gold and silver and by selling rice supplied by international relief agencies.
Thai military sources said that the commander ordered the arrest of one of his deputies, a man named Khuang. Their differences appear to have been personal rather than political. Khmer Serei soldiers loyal to Khuang left the camp and secured the assistance of Khmer Serei units operating along the border, then attacked Camp 204 Wednesday morning.
The assault added yet another to the string of misfortunes suffered by the refugees.
The civilians scattered in panic and soldiers loyal to Van Saren withdrew and were pursued to the Thai village of Non Mak Moon. However, the attackers broke off contact when the Thai Army moved in today.
Van Saren, meanwhile, took refuge at a Thai base camp near Non Mak Moon. A sentry stationed outside told reporters yesterday he was "too busy" to talk to them. Scattered shooting was reported outside 204 this morning and it remained unclear whether Van Saren would return to take control of the camp. The fate of Khuang, meanwhile, was not known.
Hundreds of Van Saren's soldiers, many of them dressed in camouflage fatigues and bright red ascots and weighed down with amulets believed to ward off bullets, milled around outside Non Mak Moon, complaining to reporters that they had run out of ammunition.
"Have a look at this," one teen-aged rifleman said as he pulled the magazine out of his M16 rifle to show it has only two bullets left.
U.S. officials repeatedly have expressed concern that border camps such as 204 would be attacked by Vietnamese troops deployed in Cambodia to support the Heng Samrin government. Although they have kept up pressure on Khmer Rouge zones, however, the Vietnamese have not yet moved against the big Khmer Serei camps, which are estimated to hold 150,000 people.
Most civilian deaths in the lawless settlement have resulted from infighting between Cambodians and attacks by the Thai Army. Thai troops last fall shelled and dispersed a camp of 60,000 people after clashes with Khmer Serei fighters based there.
Last December Thailand asked the United Nations to send observers to the border as part of a scheme to create a "safe haven" for refugees. The camps would be demilitarized and all parties pursuaded not to molest them, according to the plan. However, Thai officials say they have never received a formal response.
The Khmer Serei's proclivity for feuding has led many military analysts to write them off as a significant force on Cambodian battlefields. The better disciplined Khmer Rouge troops, believed to number around 25,000, offer a far greater threat to Vietnamese troops in the country, alalysts feel. o
Most refugees seem to have little idea of who was fighting whom at Camp 204. "We ran from the guns," was the explanation offered by a middle-aged woman. Most of them found their huts intact. But buildings that had housed Van Saren and his entourage were burned to the ground.