Cambodian police shot dead eight men and arrested more than 50 yesterday after a gang went on the rampage in what one official said was an attempt to take over the capital.
One civilian was among the eight killed during the fighting, the worst Cambodia has experienced since the July 1997 ouster of then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The gang members attacked a police station near the city's railway station at about 1am and then headed for the Defense Ministry offices about 800m away, police said.
The attack led Cambodian officials to postpone next week's scheduled visit of Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong.
"The visit is 100 percent postponed," said Om Yentieng, personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. "It is not a good time for a visit because we are continuing our operation to find the rest of the terrorists."
Residents said the predawn fighting raged from 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.
Phnom Penh's military police chief General Chhin Chan Por said the group of men were flying the flag of an anti-government group called Cambodian Freedom Fighters, but police were trying to determine if that group was responsible for the attack.
Other police officials said the unidentified leaders of the gang may be associated with the anti-communist Free Khmer or Free Vietnam movements.
"A group of armed terrorists attempted to disturb the capital but our forces reacted and full stability has been restored," Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said.
He said the attackers appeared to be well-organized, using assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers.
Officials said that seven of the attackers were killed. Of the 14 injured in the clash, seven were government police and army personnel, three of them seriously wounded.
Hun Sen, who was attending a summit of Association of South-east Asian Nations in Singapore, played down the incident as the work of a small group which he did not identify.
"It is the activity of terrorists, this is a terrorist group, no problem, very small," he said.
Defense co-Minister Tea Banh blamed the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, but provided no evidence linking the group to the attack.
"They wanted to set up bombs and destroy the Ministry of Defense," Tea Banh said. "I wonder how dare they come to attack in the center of Phnom Penh?"
Some attackers, detained afterward by the military police, said they were duped into taking part, having been lured to the capital with promises of construction jobs, and then being handed weapons and told to attack by men whose identities they did not know. They said they feared being killed themselves if they disobeyed.
Their accounts suggested the action was staged more for propaganda than to achieve any military objective.
"This was to destroy property, make noise and kill people," said Om Yentieng, a top personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, downplaying any speculation the attack was an attempted coup d'etat.
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