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Cambodia, 1954 - 1999; Part 3 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, & Troung   
May 12, 2009 at 04:49 PM
Part 3 of this report is describing events since 1975.

The Vietnamese Invasion
Aside from terrorizing the Cambodian population and riling the USA, the Khmer Rouge was swift to bring Cambodia to a collision course with Vietnam.

By 1976 there was already the first split in the leadership of the Khmer Rouge: Pol Pot and his closest aides failed to understand that their insane ideas about the Cambodian society failed: instead they launched a paranoid hunt for the “traitors” responsible for the “collapse” of the “revolution. The other fraction within the Rouge were leaders trained in Vietnam: these became the main victims of Pot’s new hunt and thousands were butchered in the bloody party purges. Only several hundreds managed to escape to Vietnam, where they formed themselves into the National Union Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea (NUFSK), a force claiming to be an anti-Khmer Rouge, and requesting the Vietnamese assistance in removal of Pol Pot from power in Cambodia.

Meanwhile, the connections between the ultra-Maoistic Khmer Rouge and the Chinese were developing positively: between 1975 and 1977 China supplied Pol Pot’s regime with over 200 tanks, 16 F-6C fighters, several naval gunboats, 30.000 tons of ammunition, and at least 15.000 advisors.

Originally, the Air Force of Kampuchea Liberation Army (AFKLA) was reconstituted around the equipment left over by the former Lon Nol Regime. Air training began with help of Chinese advisors at Battambang using Cessna T-41Ds and T-28B/Ds. A Chinese propaganda film from around 1977 showed a group of allegedlly Khmer Rouge pilots scrambling on alert toward their T-28Ds and then taking off for a “combat sortie”, and then a flight of at least four T-28Ds taking off from Pochentong, each armed with six rocket pods under the wings. Except training activities, also some limited liaison and transport operations had resumed. The only foreign journalist team allowed into Kampfuchea at the time – except the Chinese Xinhua News Agency – was from the Yugoslav TV, who came in 1978 and were able to see some C-47s operating from Phnom Penh airport.

A very rare photo of the Pochentong flightline in January 1979, showing AFKLA (Khmer Rouge) C-47s and C-123Ks. The C-47 seen in foreground had the front and rear end of fuselage painted in olive drab. The Kampuchea Democratic flag, with three yellow towers of Angkor Watt temple over a red background, is painted on the tails of the aircraft. (Leonardo Pinzauti collection, via A. Grandolini)


The Vietnamese sources, however, were reporting that tha AFKLA still used some C-47s, C-123Ks and UH-1Hs in 1978. Western sources at the time estimated the AFKLA’s strenght at 16 F-6Cs, 17 T-28Ds, 3 C-123Ks, eight C-47s, ten UH-1Hs and around ten O-1s, T-41Ds and AU-24s for observation and training.

China supplied 16 F-6Cs to the Khmer Rouge Air Force between 1975 and 1978. This particular aircraft survived the Vietnamese invasion in 1978, as well as the long war in the 1980s, and can today be seen in storage at the Army Museum in Phnom Penh. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The F-6Cs were based in Kompong Chang, a brand-new air base, together with a number of other aircraft and helicopters that survived the fighting and the elements since 1975, and were operated by a single Fighter-Interceptor unit. In addition to F-6s, the Chinese also delivered a number of anti-aircraft guns calibre 37, 57, and 85mm.

The presence of the Chinese in Cambodia caused tensions between Pol Pot and Hanoi: although a part of the Khmer Rouge leaders were ideologically aligned to Hanoi, already on 1 May 1975 they launched a commando raid on the Vietnamese Phu Quoc Island. The Khmer pulled back without any combat, but only ten days later they attempted to land at the Tho Chu Island, where the Vietnamese put up a fierce resistance. The Khmer took 515 Vietnamese civilians as hostages and pulled back, later executing all the captives. The Vietnamese were bitter, and their Navy then launched a series of operations to reoccupy some of the islands held by Khmer. Most of such operations were supported by UH-1H helicopter gunships and A-37Bs.

By 1976 the situation was already very tense, as the number of border incidents was permanently increasing. The Vietnamese were now flying a number of armed reconnaissance sorties to show their strength, but they seldom attacked. Nevertheless, on 25 February, in retaliation for another Khmer Rouge raid, a flight of MiG-21s detached to Pakse AB, in southern Laos, bombed the Cambodian town of Sieam Reap. Also, after in June 1976 the Khmer attacked Vietnamese border posts in the Tien Thuan area, and then in early 1977 also probed into the Svay Rieng Province with two or three regiments and some artillery support, from April of the same year the SRVAF hit back with a number of strikes flown by A-1s, A-37s, and MiG-21s, and then the Vietnamese Army installed several blocking positions inside the Cambodian territory.

Hanoi suspected that the Chinese could deploy units from their air force at Kompong Chnang. At the time the Vietnamese sources claimed also that the AFKLA was about to get a squadron with a dozen or so H-5 bombers (Chinese copy of the Il-28). As the number of border incidents continued increasing, the Vietnamese finally started launching raids of special forces and even whole army divisions into Cambodia in response to aggressive acts by the Khmer Rouge. On 30 April 1977, for example, the Khmer attacked and occupied the Vietnamese town of Chau Doc. Thousands of civilians were slaughtered while a large number of Khmer Kroeum – Vietnamese of Cambodian origin – were deported back into Cambodia. The Khmer then extended their offensive into the Tay Ninh Province, and by October 1977 no less but three of their divisions – all supported by plenty of 105mm, 122mm, and 130mm artillery, as well as Type-62 tanks and M-113 APCs – were deployed at least ten kilometres deep into Vietnam. During the fighting in the area also the AFKLA T-28Ds were for the first time noticed flying close support missions. It still took some time until Hanoi reacted: on 31 December five Vietnamese divisions counterattacked, causing heavy loss to the Khmer and almost cutting all their units off the border. Profiting from the chaos within the Khmer, and permanently supported by heavy SRVAF strikes, the Vietnamese then speeded up along the Mekong River, finally reaching the town of Neak Luong. By mid-March 1978 the Khmer reorganized their forces and launched a counterattack, eventually causing the Vietnamese to withdraw – in good order – back behind the border. In one case, however, a Vietnamese armoured unit was cut off by the Khmer and put under intense attacks. After suffering heavy casualties while attempting to break out the tank crews fought their way into a clearing in the jungle and were then evacuated by SRVAF helicopters.

The Khmer were not to give up: by 14 April 1978 they opened a new front in the Ba Thuc area, deploying two divisions. Both units were withdrawn back into Cambodia within a week, but only after deporting 20.000 Khmer Kroeum civilians and slaughtering 2.500 others. In response the Vietnamese deployed seven divisions along the border and by June created a buffer zone to Cambodia, in turn causing furious engagements with Khmer, which were to last until December 1978. The Vietnamese used these “liberated areas” to reorganize and reinforce NUFSK, which by December 1978 boasted a total of some 15.000 to 18.000 fighters. That was still not all: the regime in Hanoi then decided to expand the buffer zone and destroy the backbone of the Khmer units deployed along the border. This plan was, however, disrupted by the heaviest flooding in the Mekong Delta since over 100 years, and then completely changed. The Vietnamese regime were actually not concerned by the genocidal policy of the Khmer Rouge, but rather with fulfilling their historical ambition of regional domination, as well as stopping the spread of the Chinese influence in Cambodia. Nguyen Co Thach, the then Vietnamese Foreign Minister, later said that, “Human rights were not a question; That was THEIR problem – we were concerned only with security.” China is a historical enemy of Vietnam; at the time China was also a bitter enemy of the Soviet Union. Consequently, Hanoi was to act in accordance with own but also Soviet interests – the last was highly important because the USSR was to finance the following adventure.

On 27 December 1978, 300 NUFSK members “invaded” Cambodia, “supported” by a 200.000 strong Vietnamese Army. For the invasion of Cambodia, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Air Force (SRVAF) deployed the 901st Air Group – to a better part consisting of the units from the 372nd Air Division that was almost completely equipped with US-built aircraft. The 901st Air Group had no permanently assigned units, but for invasion of Cambodia it consisted of following regiments:

- 935, equipped with F-5As and F-5Bs, stationed at Bien Hoa AB

- 937, equipped with A-37Bs, stationed at Phan Rang AB

- 938, equipped with a mix of C-130s, C-119Ks, and C-47s, based at Gia Lam AB

- 917, equipped with U-17s, L-19s, UH-1s, and CH-47s, based at Tan Son Nhut AB

At some point in time the 901st Air Group was also to get the 916th Regiment SRVAF, equipped with Mi-24A helicopter gunships. According to Vietnamese records, this unit was already operational at the time of the invasion of Cambodia; according to DIA reports, however, the SRVAF received its first Mi-24As only in January 1980 – a full year after the invasion of Cambodia. According to the same source, the 916th Regiment was initially deployed at Hoa Lac, in northern Vietnam, in order to counter any Chinese offensive. The first independent reports about the deployment of Mi-24s in Cambodia indicated their appearance at Than Son Nhut and then at Pochentong only in 1983.

A Vietnamese U-17 seen at the Tan Son Nhut AB: the type was used extensivelly as FAC-aircraft during the Vietnamese invasion on Cambodia. (A. Grandolini collection)


The invasion began by a series of heavy air strikes flown by F-5s, and A-37s, which prepared the ground for the advance of the 207th, 325th and 968th, all well-supported by artillery and tanks (one of the SRVAF F-5-pilots that participated in the invasion was Nguyen Thanh Trung, the same former pilot of the South Vietnamese Air Force, that bombed the presidential palace in Saigon, on 5 April 1975, before defecting to the North Vietnamese side). It is possible that the SRVAF deployed also some of ist A-1 Skyraiders in combat as well, however, no known official Vietnamese documents mention this, even if some DIA reports indicate that the Vietnamese continued to keep up to two dozens of Skyraiders in service until at least 1977. In fact, the SRVAF Museum in Hanoi has a photograph of a Skyraider just coming out of maintenance hangar in full markings of the Vietnamese Air Force.

SVRAF F-5E seen at Bien Hoa: the F-5s of the 372nd Air Division were insturmental for support of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, in December 1978. The aircraft served with distinction for the folllowing three years, before the SVRAF almost run out of spares for them. Most of the support equipment, spares and weapons for Vietnamese F-5s was sold to Ethiopia, in the early 1980s, and to Iran during the mid-1980s: the aircraft, however, were never sold anywhere. (A. Grandolini collection)


The Vietnamese advanced very fast, within days reaching the areas of Parrots Beak and Fishook, where fierce and bloody mop-up battles were to rage for weeks. The Vietnamese did not hesitate to use the US-developed tactics of forward air controllers: quite on the contrary, they deployed Cessna U-17s to find a concentration of some 30.000 Khmer fighters at Fishhook and direct heavy air strikes that literally decimated their enemies. From the second week of the invasion the SRVAF also started deploying MiG-21MFs and a batch of Mi-24As, both of which were usually equipped with UB-16-57 and UB-32-57 rocket launchers, as well as FAB-500 bombs. A number of C-130A transports was also converted into make-shift bombers, while the balance of the SRVAF was involved in intensive transport, liaison, and other kind of support missions. Curiously, a number of Vietnamese aircraft has got the NUFSK national markings, alleging to be a part of the “National Liberation Air Force”: at least a single C-47 and one Mi-6 were seen wearing such insignia. This practice was introduced actually already in 1975, when a small number of SRVAF transports engaged in supporting the final offensive against South Vietnam have got the Viet Cong insignia – instead of the usual North Vietnamese, ironically maintaining that “no” North Vietnamese forces would be involved in the invasion of the South.
In general – and despite some problems with the maintenance, due to the lack of spares - the SRVAF preferred the F-5As and F-5Es to MiGs for air-to-ground missions, because they could carry heftier warloads over better ranges. Also, the A-37s were used – with a considerable success – for close-air-support, sometimes also in coordination with Mi-24As. The AFKLA’s response was minimal: it is known that it continued to fly some transport and liaison operations, and there are rumours that few F-6Cs also survived the initial Vietnamese strikes, and flew a number of combat sorties – perhaps flown by Chinese pilots. There is no firm confirmation for this yet, however.

While the Khmer concentration at Fishhook was methodically destroyed, two Vietnamese divisions continued the advance deeper into Cambodia. In face of fanatic counterattacks, on 30 December 1978 Kracheh was captured, and two days later also Stung Treng. The Vietnamese then landed Marines and the 12th Division into the port of Kampot, in order to prevent Chinese from resupplying the Khmer: the Marines continued a swift advance along the coast.

SRVAF CH-47A of the 917th Regiment seen while unloading 2.75-in air-to-ground rockets at a Cambodian airfield during the operations of 1979. The rockets would be used by a detachment of UH-1H gunships. (Albert Grandolini collection)


On 2 January 1979 a team of Dac Cong Special Forces was parachuted into Cambodia for a highly politically important operation: they were ordered to liberate Prince Sihanouk from the hands of the Khmer Rouge and to try to convince him to join a coalition government led by the Vietnamese. The raiders crossed the Tonle Sap River by rubber boat but was detected by the Khmer and all by one of participating troops were killed by the Khmer. After this failed attempt, the Khmer Rouge decided to release Sihanouk, and this was done on 6 January 1979: he boarded one of the five Chinese CAAC airlines Boeing 707 used for an airbridge set up by Beijing. Despite the VPAF airstrikes, these CAAC airliners continued to fly shutle flights, bringing amunition and weapons and evacuating key Khmer personnel. Sihanouk agreed to go to Beijing and then to New York to the United Nations to defend the cause of Cambodia. The next day, the VPAF helicopters had inserted special forces teams inside Phnom Penh to occupy key positions inside the abandoned city while furious combat took place in the suburbs. Pol Pot and other members of the Khmer Rouge Politburo then boarded five UH-1Hs – for what was probably the last AFKLA mission – to flee Phnom Penh. They flew to Pursat for a night pause. By the evening of 7 January the Vietnamese armour entered Phnom Penh.

On the following morning Pol Pot decided to escape to Thailand. The five Hueys carrying him and his companions were narrowly missed by a SRVAF airstrike that hit the local airfield as well the town’s railway station. The helicopters reached the Thai border and landed, but were then disabled by their crews: instead of fleeing to Thailand Pol Pot and his closest followers decided to disappear in the jungle, from where they could start a guerrilla war.

Meanwhile, by 5 January 1979 the Vietnamese took Neak Luang, and – two days later, after additional bloody battles – their Marines overran Kompong Song, capturing the local air base and the whole Khmer Air Force in the process. Despite catastrophic losses, the Khmer continued to fight, attempting to hold the Vietnamese for long enough to enable their leaders to escape into the mountains of northern Cambodia: by the end of January the Vietnamese admitted to have suffered over 8.000 casualties in combat so far. Their commanders, however, would not left themselves be dragged into a trap: for advance behind Phnom Penh and deeper into Cambodia they planned an even more carefully prepared operation. Between 15 and 17 January 1979 the F-5s and A-37s of the SRVAF flew a series of over 400 heavy strikes against the targets in Koh Kong City, on the Thai border, preparing the ground for another amphibious landing: this was to bring Vietnamese troops deep behind Phnom Penh, into a position from which they could launch an offensive straight into central Cambodia, so to cut off the Khmer from Thailand and China. During the attacks on Koh Kong a SRVAF A-37 was shot down by ground fire: the pilot, Dong Trung, ejected safely, but was captured by the Khmer and tortured to death. The SRVAF attacks were largely effective as they neutralized the last organized Khmer Rouge units.

In the meantime, on 16 January the last Khmer torpedo boats that escaped fierce Vietnamese air strikes so far were intercepted in the Gulf of Siam by the Vietnamese Navy. In the ensuing naval battle that included no less but 22 ships from both sides most of the Cambodian ships were sunk.

Reorganization of Vietnamese and Cambodian Military
By mid-March 1979, the Vietnamese were in control of all the major towns and cities in Cambodia and about to install a puppet regime in Phnom Penh. However, despite brilliant planning and opportunities, they eventually failed to use every single opportunity to maul the Khmer Rouge and destroy its combat capability: instead they allowed a considerable number to retreat to their traditional strongholds in the Cardamom Mountains. It remains unclear how could this happen, but many observers concluded that this was an excellent reason for Hanoi to justify the continued presence of her troops in Cambodia. Additionally, the new regime in Phnom Penh was largely consisting of former Khmer Rouge members: the new president, Heng Samrin, for example, had held a high rank in the Rouge and was one of the politicians directly responsible for the implementation of the genocidal politics. Hun Sen (later Prime minister), Chea Sim, and Math Ly (members of the national assembly), Kang Sarin, Ney Penna, Nou Beng and others were all former Khmer Rouge, and responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the Eastern Province. The new regime also utilized the same methods like the Khmer: torture and arbitrary executions remained a feature of life for many Cambodians, just like thousands were forced to work in massive communal defence projects, reminiscent of the labour-intensive programmes of the Rouge. Probably the worst abuse of human rights was perpetrated by the colossal “K-5 Plan”, the intention of which was to seal the border to Thailand by a combination of deforestation, dykes, canals, strategic fences, and minefields. This ambition not only brought a change in the Thai standpoint in regards to Cambodia, but also caused thousands of deaths: out of the labour force of some 120.000 used for the realization of this plan, over 50.000 died because of working in some of the worst terrain in Cambodia, containing not only dangerous minefields (laid by the Khmer), but also thick forests, full of malaria.
Without surprise, already by 1980 there was an organized armed resistance against the new government and its foreign “advisors”. While the Vietnamese still had an army of 180.000-224.000 troops in ten divisions (including the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 302nd, 309th, 330th, and 339th, together with the 950th and 126th Marine brigades) deployed in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge recovered, assembling again some 23.000 and 30.000 fighters. Soon enough there were also two non-communist groups, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF, evolving from the remnants of the old Lon Nol regime, and growing to between 55.000 and 75.000 fighters), and the Armée Nationale Sihanoukist (ANS, composed of supporters of Prince Sihanouk, numbering between 7.000 and 8.500 fighters). Most of the oppositional groups were poorly equipped, lacking in weapons and supplies. Because of this they seldom operated in any groups larger than 20 or 30: largest raids were undertaken by groups of 100 or 200 men, against outposts, farms, supply convoys and any other soft targets considered worth an attack.

The Vietnamese also reorganised the official Cambodian Army, now called “Khmer People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF), which with the time grew to between 40.000 and 75.000 troops, equipped with between 60 and 80 T-54/55 tanks (all ex Vietnamese), two dozens of PT-76s, BT-60s, V-100s, K-63 and M-113 APCs, and some 155/130/122mm artillery – as well as a new, meanwhile fourth in sequence, People’s Kampuchean Air Force (PKAF).

The PKAF was resurrected during 1984 and 1985, and initially had a mixed air-transport regiment, operating a dozen of Mi-8s and some An-24s. Despite some rumours, no former Khmer Rouge F-6Cs were ever again made operational, and it was also only in 1988 that the Vietnamese permitted the PKAF to set up a new fighter component: this unit became known as the 701st Fighter Regiment, and was equipped with 24 MiG-21bis and three MiG-21UMS. The first 13 of its mounts were delivered by the Soviets to Bien Hoa AB, in Vietnam, where the training of their crews took place and one aircraft was lost in a training accident. The unit was not declared operational before 1989, however, and would therefore not return to Cambodia in time to participate in the ongoing war the Vietnamese were waging.

PKAF MiG-21bis from the 701st Regiment seen while refuelling at Pochentong AB in 1989. During the last phase of the Vietnamese occupation war they were engaged in ground-support operations, notably against NKPLF forces around Battambang, However, with the departure of the Vietnamese adviser and the disbandement of the PKAF in the face of the UN arrival, the Cambodian MiG-21's operational service was to be of a very short duration. (A. Grandolini collection)


Otherwise, the main task of the PKAF was to lower the burden on the Vietnamese Army, foremost by establishing strongholds and patrolling areas in which different insurgent groups were active. Originally, the PKAF consisted of several battalions, but these were later expanded into regiments and finally into divisions: by the mid-1980s the PKAF consisted of seven infantry, four tank, and two engineer battalions. While not facing any real outside threat this Army, however, started suffering from a large number of deserters who joined the ANS, the Khmer Rouge and other groups.

In the early 1980s the SRVAF also went through a series of reorganizations, initiated foremost because of increasing problems with operations of US-built aircraft. With Soviet support – that meanwhile increase to approximately $500 million annually - several Air Regiments were equipped with new aircraft. Elements of the 901st Air Group were some of the leading in this process, its regiments re-equipping as follows:

- 935, equipped with F-5As and F-5Bs, has got MiG-21bis from 1982;

- 937, equipped with A-37Bs, was re-equipped with some 45 Su-22M-3Ks in 1980 and A-37s were progressively retired; the unit was to be re-equipped with Su-22M-4Ks in 1989, and reinforced by 25 refurbished and upgraded Su-22M-4Ks in 1995.
- 938, equipped with a mix of C-130s, C-119Ks, and C-47s, was re-equipped with An-2s and An-26s;
- 917, equipped with U-17s, L-19s, UH-1s, and CH-47s, was re-equipped with Mi-8s;
- 916 remained equipped with Mi-24As.

The only interceptor deployed in Cambodia in the 1980s was the dependable MiG-21 of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Air Force (SRVAF). These MiG-21bis from the 935th Regiment were seen at Bien Hoa in mid-1980s. The unit had flown F-5As and F-5Es previously. (A. Grandolini collection)


Two additional units were added to the 901st Air Group, both equipped with MiG-21bis: the 931 and 933 Regiments, both of which became operational with a total of some 25 MiG-21bis supplied by the USSR since 1979. Most of this aircraft were based at Chang and Battambang as well as Kompong Son air bases, all of which were considerably enlargened and fortified by the Vietnamese. Most of the helicopters were based in Ban Nimit, however, where a large helicopter base was developed.

At the time, the SRVAF actually operated some 270 fixed-wing fighters, 200 helicopters, and 127 transport aircraft, but much of this force was busy containing the Chinese threat in the north of the country. Therefore, the 901st Air Group remained the sole large unit deployed in Cambodia.

The SRVAF 937th Regiment exchanged its Cessna A-37Bs for Su-22M-3Ks between 1980 and 1983. A group of pilots discussed their coming sortie over a map when this photograph was taken. (A. Grandolini collection)


Underclared war with Thailand
Already the Khmer Rouge left nothing untried to isolate Cambodia from the outside world, once the Thais started supporting the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian armed groups, the new regime installed by the Vietnamese continued the politics of antagonizing its neighbours. The fighting between the Cambodians and the Thais was actually nothing new. As described above, the RTAF was flying combat operations in Cambodia already since 1966, and especially in the early 1970s. In July 1977, violent fighting between the Thai Army and the Khmer Rouge erupted in the Aranyaprathet area, and the RTAF F-5Es were called for CAS.

Of course, the RTAF also used helicopters massively for support of ground forces in heavy terrain. In fact, it seems that the Thai reaction at the time was so violent, that it was one of the reasons why the Khmer Rouge turned against Vietnam instead: the Khmer were never able to establish permanent bases along the Thai border. The situation worsened after the Vietnamese invasion as a considerable number of Khmers escaped into Thailand and established new bases there, and then even more when the insurgency against the Vietnamese increased. To make matters worse the Vietnamese then started supporting a communist opposition in Thailand, that was soon to grew to force of some 10.000 fighters. For the following 20 years the RTAF therefore became engaged in a protracted anti-guerrilla campaign inside and outside its borders, the first serious incident occurring on 23 June 1980 when the Vietnamese attacked NKPLF bases in the Aranyaprathet area. In response the RTAF and the Thai Army hit back, but the Vietnamese shot down a helicopter and also a O-1 FAC.
Meanwhile, by 1982 the situation in Cambodia was such that no Vietnamese supply convoy could be underway without a support of at least a single squad of T-55 tanks: namely, the Vietnamese troops had an insufficient number of M-113s and BTR-60s, and were suffering considerable losses in road ambushes. The Russians then started supplying increasing numbers of Mi-8s and Mi-24As, and the Vietnamese activated even a number of T-28Ds, left behind from the AVNK-times, but these were actually seldom used. The situation was not improving, however, and finally much more massive retaliation was needed: in 1981 there were rumours about the Vietnamese using a number of An-2s to spray chemical weapons on Khmer concentrations.

By 1982 the SRVAF was sometimes operating near and even over the Thai border: especially the Vietnamese An-26 transports, equipped as ELINT/SIGINT-gatherers were used to track operations of the Thai Army and search for guerrilla bases and activity. One of these crashed inside Thailand in February 1982 under unknown circumstances. The loss is not known to have been brought in connection with activity of RTAF interceptors, even if these are known to have flown CAPs in the area, and several times even attempted to intercept Vietnamese reconnaissance aircraft: neither Hanoi nor Bangkok was interested in widening the war, and consequently such operations were undertaken very carefully by both sides.

In April 1983 the Vietnamese attacked NKPLF bases in the Aranyaprathet area again, but meet a fierce resistance. On 4 April the first two RTAF F-5Es bombed the Vietnamese, and over the next few days additional strikes were flown before an A-37 was brought down by SA-7, on 8 of the month. In late March 1984, the Vietnamese launched an attack against the Khmer Rouge base in the Dongrek mountain range, opposite Sisaket province. When Vietnamese troops entered Thai territory, the Thai Army responded by shelling them and calling in A-37-strikes. The fighting continued into April and the RTAF increased its sortie rate forcing the Vietnamese to deploy anti-aircraft artillery units. On 14 April a Thai O-1 was brought down, followed the next day by an A-37B.

A Vietnamese gunner seen in his position inside the cargo bay of a SVRAF C-130A Hercules transporter: note the US-made Mk.82 bombs on palets around him and the makeshift "periscope" and targeting systemenabling him to see the target, so to activate and drop the bombs in time. The SVRAF made extensive use of C-130s and An-26s equipped in this way for attacks against guerrilla strongholds in the 1980s. (A. Grandolini collection)


A fully bombed-up RTAF A-37B from the 211 Squadron/21st Wing seen at Ubon in the 1980s. The Dragonflies were engaged extensively against the Vietnamese troops that made forays into Thai territory. (Albert Grandolini collection)


In November 1984 the Vietnamese concentrated a force of 75.000 troops for a large operation against the ANS and the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border. Not much was reported about this offensive, but it is known that by January 1985 the fighting spilled over the border into Thailand, in the Ampil area. The Vietnamese used plenty of artillery and tanks forcing the Thais to react. The RTAF was again called and A-37s flew a number of strike sorties. This time, however, the Vietnamese had their air defences ready, and also a number of Soviet MiG-23MLDs deployed at Cam Ranh Bay AB, and the last were seen flying CAPs along the Thai border. In fact, there were several unconfirmed reports about engagements between RTAF F-5Es and Soviet MiGs, as well as Vietnamese helicopters, but it seems these were all spread by the government in Bang Kong with the target of compelling Washington to supply more modern F-16 fighters. The RTAF was seriously concerned about the possibility that Vietnam would acquire some MiG-23s. Eventually, in March 1985, the USA finally agreed to sell eight F-16As and four F-16Bs, worth $318 million. This represented a substantial part of the RTAF budget at the time and the air force was therefore forced to cut back on other projects. For example, the acquisition of additional C-130s was postponed.

The fear of Soviet MiG-23MLD or an eventual acquisition of Floggers by the Vietnamese Air Force prompted the RTAF to purchase eight F-16As and four F-16Bs in March 1985. They re-equiped the 103rd Squadron/1st Wing at Korat AB. (General Dynamics via Albert Grandolini)


In fact, the only direct Soviet involvement in Cambodia was in the area of tactical transport operations. Shortly after the fall of Phnom Penh, in January 1979, Soviet Il-76s and An12s – all wearing the Aeroflot colours – were noticed flying in badly needed humanitarian relief. The same transports, however, were noticed off-loading equipment for the Vietnamese Army. When China invaded northern Vietnam, in February 1979, the Soviet transports were also used to move four Vietnamese divisions (10th, 304th, 320th, and 325th) from Cambodia to the Hanoi area. The Soviets maintained a detachment of An-12s in Cambodia between 1980 and 1982, which was then replaced by a number of SRVAF An-26s. These, however, had also to be flown by Soviet pilots, because the Vietnamese lacked qualified crews for them. This practice was to be continued through the rest of the 1980s.

Back to the Vietnamese offensive against the Khmer Rouge: by January 1985, the fighting spilled over the border around Ampil. The Vietnamese used artillery and tanks, forcing the Thai to react. The Thai Army called in RTAF for support and soon A-37s were flying bombing missions. The Vietnamese were prepared for this, and on 8 January, they brought down an A-37B with a SA-7. The RTAF continued to fly attack sorties with A-37s and F-5s until the Vietnamese withdrew a few days later. When the Vietnamese offensive was concluded, in March 1985, it was declared for “another success” by Hanoi. In fact, the Khmer were weakened, but not wiped out. Ever since, the Vietnamese altered their tactics: realized the pointlessness of expending immense efforts in skirmishes with the evasive guerrilla, the Vietnamese concentrated on winning the hearts and minds of the Cambodian population, while attempting to conserve their resources. On the other side, the guerrilla had their own problems as well: most of the KPNLF leaders were US-trained members of the former Cambodian Army, the training and previous experience of which made it difficult for them to adapt to the changing requirements of the guerrilla war. The Khmer had it easier, benefiting from their earlier experiences; the ANS, on the contrary, came out pretty badly shot-up from the campaign in 1984-1985, and subsequently attempted to avoid unnecessary confrontations, instead concentrating on penetrations deep into Cambodia, in order to increase its influence.

An RTAF F-5E from the 102nd Squadron/1st Wing of Korat is seen returning from a patrol along the Cambodian border in 1987. The Thai F-5Es were engaged in both escort and ground attack missions. (Albert Grandolini collection)


In addition, antagonizing Thailand proved not to be the best idea: in late May 1985 the Thai Marines were sent to attack Vietnamese troops dug-in along the southern part of the mutual border. This limited offensive was supported by the RTAF, which hit the Vietnamese hard. Thai fighter-bombers remained active in the following weeks and months, with F-5s and A-37s flying a large number of CAS sorties. The Vietnamese response was weak, then the Thais reported only eleven “attacks” of Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns or missiles. In fact, at the time the Vietnamese forces were overstretched. Hanoi was unable to support protracted offensives, and the Army could not operate offensively in several parts of Cambodia simultaneously. The SRVNAF was also facing considerable problems. The number of available Su-22M-3Ks – their only fighter-bombers capable of carrying heavier warloads – was always low, as some had to be held back for the defence of Vietnam, and some were always in maintenance, while the MiG-21s proved poor in COIN warfare. Consequently, they lacked firepower and started adapting C-130 and An-26 transport aircraft as bombers.

In an attempt to prevent the guerrilla from reaching deeper into Cambodia, from the mid-1980s the Vietnamese and the KPRAF reinforced especially the Military Region 4, in the north-western Cambodia, and even started undertaking preventive operations over the Thai border. By 1986, namely, the Khmer Rouge were so weakened by the Vietnamese attacks, that most of the Khmers took refuge in Thailand – in camps already overcrowded by their former opponents; the ANS and the KPNLF, however, became increasingly popular in Cambodia, as the population could still remember the times they ruled as those of (relative) peace and prosperity. Consequently, the Vietnamese concentrated some 45.000 troops – including their elite units, like E.117/Dak Kong (Special Action) brigade - in this region alone, and these were permanently engaged in intensive patrols.

The Thais were not to sit still, however. By January 1987 the regime in Phnom Penh claimed that RTAF aircraft violated the Cambodian airspace no less but 33 times: this is a very good indication of how massive the Thai operations along the mutual border actually were – especially given the fact that the poor radar coverage of the Cambodian airspace likely failed to detect dozens of other sorties, then the Thai Uh-1s, L-19s, A-37s, and F-5s were flying almost permanent combat air patrols along the border! The troops on the ground knew very well what was going on and soon enough the first reports became known about the Vietnamese regular troops being frequently hit by RTAF F-5Es, dropping napalm. Most of such operations were unopposed by the SRVAF or the KPRAF, even if these operated Mi-8s, Mi-24s, and T-28s in the area. But, in the same month a RTAF L-19 was shot down inside Cambodia. In return, the Thais started supplying SA-7 MANPADs to Khmer and KPNLF, and only a month later also a Vietnamese Mi-8 was shot down near Phnom Priel. Nevertheless, due to the low intensity of Vietnamese and Cambodian air operations, most of the expensive MANPADS rotted in the humidity long before there was any opportunity for their use.

Throughout the 1980s the SRVAF used mainly converted transports as bombers. Helicopter gunships - such as this Mi-8 - also saw extensive use for ground support. Fighter-bombers were brought in from Vietnam only during the annual dry season offensives. This SRVAF Mi-8 from the 917th Regiment is seen during preparations for another combat sortie. (A. Grandolini collection)


The Vietnamese meanwhile decided to change their tactics and start engaging Thais in a conventional war. Having cleared the border area of guerrilla camps they decided to take and hold portions of Thai territory, in order to deny guerrilla infiltrations. By January 1988 they therefore occupied the Chong Bok mountain pass, south of Ubon. The RTAF F-5s were sent to bomb the place several times and in April supported a Thai Army counteroffensive. The areas was not brought back under the control of Bang Kong, however, before another counterattack, staged by Thai special forces, which took the place only after it was heavily pounded by RTAF F-5s.

The Self-Disassembly Cambodia’s
In general, the Vietnamese never had it easy in Cambodia: used to guerrilla warfare, in which they excelled for decades (in the 1960s and 1970s many described the Vietnamese as having the “best light infantry of the world”), they now had to play a new role – that of a conventional force, tasked with occupying Cambodia against a guerrilla force in the field. The Vietnamese also made two fatal mistakes: they failed to destroy the Khmer Rouge in 1979, believing their new positions in the country would be unassailable, and subsequently they failed to prevent the development of additional guerrilla movements around the country. Even more so, being unable to finance a larger war against Thailand, they could never destroy the guerrilla bases in that country. By 1989, Hanoi was compelled to warn the regime in Phnom Penh that it would soon be pulling its troops out of the country: Moscow was about to cease the financial support for Vietnam, which could not sustain the war alone. After lengthy negotiations it was agreed the Vietnamese troops would be leaving Cambodia in 1990, leaving the regime in Phnom Penh to rule the country alone. Before leaving, they reinforced the KPRAF to over 100.000 fighters, delivering plenty of new weapons. Also, the 701st Fighter Regiment was finally permitted to return to Cambodia, even if the unit still had to be supported by Vietnamese instructors and technicians. As soon as the unit arrived, it was reinforced by 16 MiG-21bis from the USSR, and then thrown into combat – notably to counter a KPLNF offensive in the Battambang and Oddar Meanchey Provinces – its aircraft usually armed with 57mm rocket pods.

Clearly, however, there was no hope that 28 MiG-21bis, three MiG-21UMs, and 100.000 demoralized Cambodian troops would succeed where 200.000 combat-proven Vietnamese could not.

Indeed, as soon as the Vietnamese pulled out, the guerrilla started a powerful offensive, capturing most of north-western Cambodia, and then advancing into the centre of the country, capturing considerable amounts of arms and equipment underway. Nevertheless, simultaneously the UN attempted to mediate peace negotiations: these were extremely problematic, as the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, blamed Prince Sihanouk for insisting on the “genocidal” Khmer Rouge to be included in the transitional government, that was to come to power and prepare democratic elections. Even if considering Hun Sen a “lackey of Vietnam”, Sihanouk understood that no peace in Cambodia would be possible without participation of the Khmer Rouge; as a former member of the Rouge himself, Sen also knew his former friends would consider him as somebody who betrayed them to the Vietnamese as well. Nevertheless, in 1991 a peace accord was signed in Paris.

The cease-fire lasted for exactly a month, as the Khmer Rouge launched a new offensive against its government, its fighters again committing atrocities against the civilian population. The result were new massacres and an economic chaos. In June 1991, even if weakened by new desertions and the lack of equipment, the government reacted with a counteroffensive against the city of Pailin. In the middle of this situation the UN became active, deploying 28.000 troops and police officers from Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, and Sweden in an attempt to establish a lasting peace. The UN contingent in Cambodia became known as the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), and was supported by a number of chartered aircraft, including C-130Hs of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, and the C.160Fs of the French Air Force, as well as several helicopters (six French SA.330 Pumas, as well as Russian Mi-17s and Mi-26s). UNTAC commander, Australian Lt.Gen. Sanderson, led his troops with much discipline, courage, and quite some success, even if the UN-troops were at least once on the edge of a war with local guerrillas.

Under UNTAC supervision, in October 1991 the PKAF was forced to disband: during the UN-sponsored negotiations, namely, each of the warring factions agreed to disarm a part of its armed forces and the Cambodian government concluded that it could live without its air force. At the time the PKAF still consisted of the 701st Fighter Regiment, equipped with approximately a dozen of operational MiG-21bis, and a transport element with 12 Mi-8s, two Tu-134s, a single An-12 and three An-24s. In the course of this process, all the MiG-21s were stored at Pochentong and turned under the control of the Indian Army contingent of the UNTAC, even if some transports and helicopters were kept operational for limited operations under the aegis of the new national carrier company, the Kampuchea Airlines. While stored, the MiG-21s have got new national markings (see the artwork bellow), while the PKAF was – once again – renamed into the “State of Cambodia Air Force” (SCAF). Effectively, however, this air force was non-operational and most of ist personnel forced to leave.

The UNTAC supervised also the first free democratic elections were held in Cambodia in May 1993, on which actually the existing administration was confirmed. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, even if almost 3.000 of Khmer fighters decided to side with the government. The fighting therefore continued, and on 5 November 1993 the Khmer shot down an UNTAC Mi-17 near Anghor. The passengers and the crew, consisting of three Russian pilots, seven Pakistanis and an Indian were recovered safely, however.
Meanwhile, a new – “Royal Cambodian Air Force” (RCAF) – was reconstitued in 1993, and put under the control of the new coallition government that emerged after the elections. The reborn RCAF again changed ist national markings, reverting to those used in the period 1954-1970. It incorporated many former personnel from Lon Nol’s era and was put under command of General Norodom Vatvany, a competent officer who served with the air force in the period 1970-1975.

Nevertheless, lack of funds and personnel made the recovery very difficult. The new air arm could only resurect a limited strike capability with a half dozen MiG-21s operational as well as the various transports and helicopters, excepting the An-12 Cub and the two Tu-134s that were sold to civilian operators.

The Khmer could not care less about the poor condition of the RCAF, and they continued their activities. Therefore, on 4 January 1994 the Commander of the Military District 4, Gen. Long Sopheap, deployed a task force of 1.500 troops into an attack on Anlong Ven, one of the most important Khmer Rouge bases: the attack was thrown back, however, the Army would not give up. In early March 1994 a new attack was started towards the Khmer Rouge “capital”, the town of Pailin, on the Thai border. The offensive reached its climax between 19 and 21 March, with furious fighting raging in the area until Pailin fell. The RCAF participated in the combat, flying several armed reconnaissance sorties with MiG-21s. In fact, the Khmer later claimed to have damaged one of the MiGs, which was forced to land at Battambang. Meanwhile, foreign journalists were flown to Pailin aboard a RCAF Mi-8, only to find that the local airstrip was still subjected to harassing by enemy mortars. In fact, only ten days later the Khmer counterattacked, recapturing Pailin with help of artillery and a number of Type-59 tanks.

"Typical scene" from the Cambodian battlefields: a BTR-60 of the Cambodian Army is closing upon one of the typical Cambodian temples. (Jin Ho collection)


Cambodian Army T-54 seen under maintenance. (Jin Ho collection)


In May of the same year, the government concentrated no less but 7.000 troops for the same task, supported by numerous tanks and heavy artillery. This time Pailin was conquered, but Khmer Rouge largely escaped again. Quite on the contrary: on 26 July the Khmer attacked a train, killing 13 and capturing ten people, including several foreigners. The government first attempted to negotiate for the release of the hostages, then ordered the Army in action: the city of Phnom Vaour – where the hostages were held – was put under a siege and heavily shelled, before the special troops went in. The Khmer escaped while all the hostages were killed.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian Army was in the middle of a series of reorganizations, initiated already in 1993 with quite some support from Australia, Indonesia, and even Israel, foremost on the basis of the fact that the government recognized the need to reinforce the military by additional military equipment and more modern training methods.

Initially, some T-55 tanks, as well as BTR-6 and OT-64 APCs were purchased from Poland and the Czech Republic, followed by two Mi-17 helicopters from Slovakia. Two Mi-26s were then obtained from the Ukraine, as well as two AS.350s, a single SA.365, and one TB-20 Tobago from France. Other acquisitions were three BN-2 Defenders, a Fokker F.28 transport, Dassault Faclon 20, six Technam P.92 trainers from Italy, two Y-12 transports from China, as well as a Cessna 401, Cessna 421, a Beech 200 King Air And an Aero Commander. The Indonesians have trained 225 paratroopers, but the RCAF was foremost to benefit from cooperation with Israel, which practically donated six refurbished L-39 Albatros training fighters, and offered to reconstruct the whole air force, including refurbishment of up to 24 MiG-21bis fighters. Consequently, a decision was taken four MiGs to be sent to Israel for refurbishment and modification by the IAI.

During the 1996 dry season offensive, the RCAF also deployed three BN-2 Islanders. They were used as light gunships, firing rockets and even dropping mortar rounds. One BN-2 was lost during this offensive. (J Dessalier via Albert Grandolini)


The RCAF also acquired two Mil Mi-26 from Ukraine and deployed them during the 1996 dry season offensive. The heavy helicopters were initially flown and maintained by East European contracted personnel. (Darasy Var via Albert Grandolini)


Before long, the RCAF suffered a heavy blow, when on 4 March 1995 a Technam P.92 crashed into a temple in Kompong Rank, killing the deputy CO of the air force. This tragedy came at a time the small force faced immense financial problems: the Cambodians had enough fighter- and helicopter pilots, but lacked the money: out of eleven Mi-17s meanwhile supplied from Russia (all were based at Pochentong), for example, only six were usually operational. Consequently, the IAI stopped working on the four MiGs that were already in Israel, and these remained impounded in the country for a number of years. Instead of the MiGs, the Israelis refurbished two L-39s and modified them with modern navigational systems and compatibility with some Western weapons (the original contract, worth $6 million, planned a delivery of ten L-39s to Cambodia, but only two were delivered). However, another blow followed in 1997: on 12 December Maj. Eour Vuthy was killed when flying one of these two L-39s in the Koh Thom district of Kandal Province, just outside the capital.

For the new government offensive, launched during the dry season in 1996, the RCAF could therefore offer only a very limited support, including five Mi-17s configured as gunships, and three BN-2s. By the time, all the remaining MiG-21s were grounded for the lack of spares and personnel qualified to maintain them. The offensive that targeted Pailin failed once again, and the Army suffered extensive casualties, including at least two dozens of tanks. The failure was foremost attributed to dissenton within the military, as there were troops feeling loyal foremost to the 1st Prime Minister, Norodom Ranariddh, and others loyal to the former communist and now 2nd Prime Minister, Hun Sen. The only bright spot was the defection of a part of the Khmer Rouge forces to the Governement side: in August 1996 some 3000 Khmer Rouge and their leader Ieng Sary negotiated their integration into the government forces and then surendered!

The resurected Royal Cambodian Air Force of the 1990s was only a pale reflection of what it was in the 1960s - 1970s period. It mainly flew a few light transport planes and helicopters. This Mil Mi-17 is being refuelled at Pochentong in 1996. (J. Dessalier via Albert Grandolini)


During the 1996 dry season offensive against the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, the RCAF could deploy only five Mi-17 gunship helicopters, in addition to eight other Hips used as transports. A Gunship Mi-17 is seen here with a full load of 57mm rockets. (Darasy Var via Albert Grandolini)


The RCAF M-17 gunships usually increased their firepower by adding two 7.62mm machine-guns on apertures of the rear clamshell door. (Darasy Var via Albert Grandolini)


Nevertheless, during the following years the government was slowly to become more successful, especially as the Khmer Rouge was now further weakened by additional desertions and splits, to a large degree motivated by Ranariddh and Sen attempting to drag elements of the Rouge to their side. In March 1997 a RCAF Mi-17 sent to Preah Vihear, carrying a delegation that was to negotiate with the Khmer, flew into a trap: the envoys were captured and the helicopter destroyed. In June 1997 Pol Pot – and Khieu Samphan (senior figure within the Rouge) – had been seized in a remote region of Anlong Veng by a fraction of the Khmer Rouge that turned against him, lead by Ta Mok. Pot died in custody on 15 April of the following year, but Ta Mok was not to remain in lead for any longer.

Meanwhile, Sen suspected that his co-Prime Minister was secretly negociating with the Khmer Rouge, and that these combined forces could be deployed against him. He immediately acted, sending the Army to arrest Ranaridh. Violent combats broke out in Phnom Penh between 4 and 6 July 1997, but eventually Sen emerged victorious. The chaos brought in by the combats threatened the safety of the foreigners living in the city and Thailand decided to deploy four C-130Hs to Pochentgon, to evacuate them. The RTAF F-16s were also maintained on alert, ready to intervene if the evacuation operation was opposed. Ranariddh fled towards the Thai border with part of his troops. The fighting in Phnom Penh had a devastating effect on the RCAF, even if it remained neutral: most of the personnel felt loyal to Ranariddh, and were subsequently purged.

In May 1998 the Army pushed the Khmer out of their last bases inside Cambodia; the Rouge fought bitterly, clinging for every piece of ground they could, but the new Cambodian troops, well-versed in COIN warfare and better equipped then ever before were outgunning and outmanoeuvring them. This offensive caused a considerable refugee crisis, as with the Khmer fighters also some 60.000 civilians fled into Thailand, but the situation was solved after the following elections, in July 1998. Ever since, there is a relative peace in Cambodia, despite some low-level guerrilla and banditry activity of the Khmer Rouge remnants: the population is definitely feed up of the war, and the successive governments attempt to establish a lasting peace and start an economic recovery.
Today, the small and cash-starved Cambodian Air Force – commanded by Gen. Kong Mony, a former MiG-21-pilot trained by the Soviets and the Vietnamese – is only slowly recovering, and hardly more than a pale shade of its might from the 1970s. In December 1999 Israel returned two of the MiG-21s that were modified by the IAI, after these were stranded at Lod, because Phnom Penh could not pay their refurbishment. The other two MiG-21s, however, remained in Israel, and their final fate is unknown. The MiG-21 that were returned are seldom flown and most of the operational activity is concentrated on the Mi-17 helicopters and P.92 trainers. Nevertheless, by the year 2000 – with Chinese and Japanese financial support - the CAF was able to increase the number of operational L-39s to five, even if two of these were almost permanently grounded for the lack of spares.

The same MiG-21bis as shown on the artwork bellow, seen in a hangar at Pochentong AB, near Phnom Penh, in the early 1990s. (Australian MoD, via Tom Cooper)


Cambodia received between 24 and 28 MiG-21bis from the USSR in the early 1980s. These saw relatively little use in the long war, most becoming derelict by the early 1990s. Four were sent to Israel for refurbishment (according to some sources also to be brought to MiG-21bis-2000 standard), but only two returned so far, due to the lack of funds. The camouflage marking shown here is that used by the Cambodian Air Force between 1989 and 1994: today, the air force is again using the markings from before 1970. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


During the last three years Cambodia was several times hit by waves of anti-Thai resentments: the Thai economic presence is strongly felt and several politicians played with the traditional defiance between the two countries. On 29 January 2003 an angry mob attacked the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, and left it in flames. The Cambodian police was noted for its inactivity despite the spread of violence to the other parts of the city: the protesters – most of them students – attacked Thai-owned businesses and demolished cars, protesting against an alleged declaration made by some Thai actress that the famous Angkor Watt temples were a part of Thailand. The government in Bang Kok urged Phnom Penh to quickly restore order and to present excuses. Facing Cambodian unwillingness to do so, the Thai requested to send military transpost planes to evacuate their citizens, claiming that if the Cambodians were unable to provide security at the airport, they would insert special forces inside Phnom Penh. The RTAF was put on alert, ready to intervene and the border closed. Finally, the Cambodian government relented and agreed to left the Thai planes to land. On 30 January, five C-130Hs of the RTAF 601st Squadron landed at Pochentong to pick up 511 Thai nationals, including 14 of the embassy staff.

An RTAF C-130H from the 601 Squadron/6th Wing is seen here during a training excercise for evacuation of civilian hostages. On two occasions, in Jully 1997 and January 2003, the Thai Hercules had to flay in for real into Phnom Penh to pick up threatened Thai and other foreign nationals. (Albert Grandolini Collection)

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