BRITISH demining specialist Chris Howes - at press time on April 2 in his seventh
day as a hostage to armed men, at an unknown location - was "brave" in
refusing a conditional offer of freedom, says his boss, Mines Advisory Group (MAG)
country director Archie McCarron.
Howes, 36, from Bristol in England, was kidnapped on March 26 around 9am with 26
Cambodian deminers in a village north of Siem Reap.
Howes was told later that same day he could leave to bring back an as-yet unknown
ransom, in exchange for ten Khmer deminers the kidnappers would have kept. This was
dependant on local police and militia not becoming involved.
"Chris could not obviously ensure the continued welfare of his team had he left,"
"He made a decision for the welfare of his team that he should stay."
While Howes, 36, and his interpreter Houn Hoerth stayed, the rest of the deminers,
by 2pm on the first day, had been freed unharmed.
McCarron, acknowledging Howes was "brave", also said: "MAG specialists
are responsible for the safety of the team members and their welfare.
"They build up a rapport with the team, and a sense of camaraderie where each
member supports the other. Specialists are an integral part of this ethos,"
Howes, who came to Cambodia in November last year, has worked for some years at MAG
- his mission before Cambodia was in Kurdistan - and before that as an engineer in
the British Army.
His father was quoted on BBC television saying that Howes was trained for such circumstances,
and would cope well.
McCarron said Howes was a "boisterous character socially," but "workwise
was stable, experienced and a fairly cool character."
Howes and Hoerth appear to have fallen into the hands of a group that were Khmer
Rouge, who defected to the Government and later sent to Poipet to fight. They promptly
deserted the battlefield, commandeered an armored personnel carrier, and drove back
to Siem Reap - on the way back involved in a tense stand-off with RCAF regulars who
decided it was more prudent to let them pass.
There has not been any independently confirmed sighting or contact from the group
since March 26. "We're in the unfortunate and unhappy position of receiving
speculative reports of where Chris and Hoerth may be," McCarron said. Differing
stories about their location have come from various official and unofficial channels.
Siem Reap authorities are leading attempts to arrange the hostages' release. The
shady nature of the group - whose contacts with the Khmer Rouge are said to be stronger
than those with the Government - is probably making provincial governor Toan Chay's
job so much harder. McCarron said local authorities view the group as "bandits
whose allegiances seem to sway."
When asked whether authorities had made their best efforts to break the deadlock,
McCarron said: "We have to assume so, and there's reason for any perceived shortfall."
MAG and provincial authorities are trying to establish a "mechanism" to
work together to validate the various accounts of the hostages' location and condition.
"Unfortunately we're in an early stage to establish this," McCarron said.
Howes - whose team were demining a tertiary road, under subcontract to the German
NGO KFW, on behalf of a World Food Program project - had made it known to all competent
authorities that MAG was working in the area, McCarron said. "It's true that
it was a new location for us," he said, "but it was known to all those
who needed to know."
MAG does not have armed guards as security, McCarron said. As a non-political, non-sectarian
organization, it relied on being part of the mainly UN security network, being briefed,
receiving reports and liasing with local police and militia about security matters.
"All this had been done by Chris, including the previous night and on that morning
of their departure to the site," McCarron said.
McCarron said witnesses' reports were still being re-checked and verified. However,
he related the following chain of events.
The demining team had arrived at the site around 7:50am, a bit late because one of
their two trucks had mechanical problems.
Before 9am they had checked their equipment and begun work. Some of the deminers
said they saw three or four armed men around the parked trucks, but thought they
were local militia and paid them no attention.
One deminer then saw the men level their guns at Howes and Heorth, and immediately
a larger group of men - with guns levelled - approached from the north, following
livestock paths across the mine field.
An unknown number of deminers ran off - later to be reported doing so on a UN radio
network, which was the first MAG in Phnom Penh heard of the trouble- while the rest
were told to stay put "or they would be fired upon."
Howes and Hoerth were put in the back of the MAG Toyota pick-up, while the other
deminers climbed into the back of the hired truck.
They were driven north about four kms till the road stopped. At this point, Howes
was given the option to return and get money, and told that if local militia approached
"we will kill the deminers." Howes refused.
The men were all then marched off into a heavily wooded forest; several managed to
escape at this point, but how many is unknown.
Around 2pm, the kidnappers decided to release all the Khmer deminers, keeping Howes
and Hoerth, reminding the released men "that any approach by local militia or
police may result in them killing Chris and Hoerth," McCarron said.