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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt dismisses UN terrorism warning

Govt dismisses UN terrorism warning

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Counter-terrorism commandos train for hostage situations.

T wo hostages are at the mercy of kidnappers, possibly terrorists, in a house outside of Phnom Penh. From inside, a man bashes the walls and shouts his demands: a car and money, fast.

The cops agree and a sedan arrives soon after. Pointing a hand gun at the hostage's head, the bad guy inches through the front door when suddenly the car boot flies open and a black-clad figure leaps out, shooting the gunman as he goes.

A jeep races in packed with more men in black fatigues and balaclavas. They detonate a loud smoke bomb inside the house and burst in. Shots ring out in the still afternoon heat. As the smoke clears, the bad guy is dragged outside and handcuffed, drawing polite applause from the gathered crowd.

The staged exercise was for the benefit of ASEAN Regional Forum delegates touring army facilities and the bad guys were cardboard cut outs (complete with balloons and watermelons for heads) and a play-acting soldier-cum-kidnapper with a blue plastic gun.

The assault team are members of the Counter-Terrorism Unit, a force selected from the parachuting commandos of Special Airborne Brigade 911, part of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

Their display on October 27 had particular resonance, coming as it did just days after comments from a United Nations official that Cambodia was in danger of becoming a "breeding ground" for terrorists.

The warning came from Heraldo Munoz, the chairman of the United Nations Security Council committee that reviews the implementation of sanctions against listed terrorist groups.

"There are some countries that are far behind ... in their capabilities to confront the threat of terrorism and, therefore, they could become platforms for the operation of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and other groups associated with al-Qaeda," said Munoz.

Munoz highlighted Cambodia's lack of appropriate anti-terrorism legislation and said the kingdom was one of the countries that "urgently need international cooperation to enhance their capability to fight terrorism.

"With no cooperation, there will be no progress against terrorism. Otherwise, we will see terrorist actions in these countries. We are very certain of that," said Munoz.

He mentioned Hambali, the leader of JI, who was arrested in Thailand after spending time at a guesthouse beside Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh, saying "he was not vacationing there, clearly."

Discrimination and reports of violence against Muslims in southern Cambodia were worrying, said Munoz, although people close to Cambodia's Muslims were baffled by the remarks (see below).

Munoz made the comments at a press conference after visiting Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. References to key leaders being away at an Asia-Europe meeting suggest the Cambodian leg of his visit took place between October 7 and 10.

It is understood Munoz met with Norodom Sirivudh and Sar Kheng, co-ministers of the Ministry of Interior, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly and a senior banking official.

Angry response from govt

Prime Minister Hun Sen was in Hanoi for the Asia-Europe summit and did not meet Munoz, but sent a scathing response to the comments in a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"The malicious statement released by Mr Munoz on Cambodia is not only baseless but also came with an intention to discredit Cambodia," wrote Hun Sen.

"Mr Munoz has his own fantasy, and it is sad that a person with such a high profile would make an irresponsible and unsubstantiated statement," said the October 27 letter.

While few see Cambodia as a likely target for terrorist attacks, the recent UN comments reinforce the impression that the country could be used as a hideout, recruitment and training area or meeting point for terrorists.

While attitudes have hardened after the Hambali visit, and some headway is being made, Cambodia still lacks the ability to independently investigate terrorists' activities or prosecute suspects under current legislation, said a report on patterns of global terrorism released by the US State Department last April.

The report said Cambodia had "fully cooperated with US requests to monitor terrorists" and noted the introduction of a computerized border control system at the Phnom Penh airport as an achievement.

Graham Shaw, local program officer for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), agreed that improvements to immigration checks and increasing law enforcement are having an effect.

"I think Cambodia is much more resistant than perhaps five years ago," said Shaw. "The kind of references made recently [by Munoz] overemphasize the risks because it makes Cambodia sound like Iraq or Afghanistan, and they're not in the same league."

Shaw said the weaponry available in Cambodia was mostly used goods from past wars and not necessarily what modern terrorists were interested in buying, but other illegal activities may nurture networks that support terrorists.

"There is a direct linkage between the proceeds from drug and human trafficking to corruption and money laundering which goes to fund terrorism," said Shaw.

While terrorism is officially part of the mandate of the UNODC in Cambodia, it focuses on combating drug and organized crime. However, the fact that Heraldo Munoz did not meet Shaw or many other local UN agents has raised eyebrows from observers.

UNODC headquarters in Vienna is currently assisting Cambodia to draft new laws on terrorism, as the existing legislation was enacted in 1992 to deal with the Khmer Rouge.

Internationally, Cambodia is a party to only four of the 12 conventions and protocols relating to terrorism but is a signatory to a convention for suppressing the financing of terrorism.

Cambodia has also signed a counter-terrorism agreement with Australia, a country praised by Munoz as being "at the forefront" of efforts in the region.

An Australian Embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh said Australia provided help with the "housing and other facilities" of the Special Airborne Brigade 911 force. Other diplomatic missions declined to comment.

Cambodia's capabilities

The Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) of the 911 Brigade may be impressive in a rehearsed show, but what are their capabilities against real terrorists?

"It would depend on the real situation," said the leader of the CTU, who did not want to be identified despite having his name embroidered on his uniform.

He said their training prepared them for hostage situations in buildings or aircraft, while a promotional video of 911 training showed parachuting and hand-to-hand combat.

When asked about scuba diving and beach landings also seen in the video, he admitted that was not a strong point.

Neither the CTU leader nor Chap Pakdey, commander of the 911 brigade, would say how many specially trained men they had (17 were on show for the ASEAN delegation), but admitted that any large operation would have to be backed up by police or military.

In times of trouble, a "big force" could be assembled from the ranks of police, military and specialized forces, said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior (MoI).

But combat-ready forces are just one aspect of the fight against terrorism.

"Right now we have the department of anti-terrorism [in the MoI] and the information that we collect has to go through the hierarchy," said Sok Phal, director of the Central Department of Security at the Ministry of Interior.

Phal said the Ministry's anti-terrorism department cooperates with other countries in the region and beyond.

A sub-decree had been drafted by the MoI to establish a special committee at the political level, said Phal, but this had not yet been approved. Khieu Sopheak also mentioned this special committee and said it would be commanded by Hun Sen.

Nhim Vanda, first deputy director of the National Committee on Disaster Management, said his agency would coordinate with the Cambodian Red Cross and Ministry of Health if an attack occurred on Cambodian soil.

While Heraldo Munoz's warning may have raised questions about Cambodia's capabilities against terrorists, there's at least one man with complete faith in the Counter-Terrorism Unit.

That's the brave soldier who stood, very still, in the middle of a firing range on October 27 with a balloon in each hand as his colleague popped them with two shots from a sleek-looking rifle.

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