H OSTAGE taking in Kampot is not new. Over the past two years hundreds of people have been held by the Khmer Rouge (KR) for ransom in this area.
The difference is that this time the KR have netted three Westerners, and world attention is focusing on what, to the Cambodians, is a way of life.
"They take Khmer all the time. The locals don't fret about this. They cope with it. It's indiginous in Kampot. It's like getting caught by the tax collector and having to pay. They gear the ransom to what they think the family can afford," says an aid worker who lives in the province.
Normally the hostages are Cambodians from poor villages in the area, and their families pay the equivalent of a few dollars, often in rice or petrol, and recently in cement.
Four months ago the guerrillas netted four wealthy Chinese-Cambodians whose families had to pay more than $10,000 to free them.
The Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville train is usually ambushed at the same spot, near a coconut plantation about 10 km east of Kampot town, from where a well-worn path leads to the mountains which run in a chain northeast of Kampot town for 10-15 km.
The train has been hit at this spot eight times in the past 18 months, according to Tourism Minister Veng Seryvuth who now admits local authorities connived with the KR to ambush trains on a regular basis to "share the freight and other property stolen".
Normally the train is hit when going north because it is bringing motorbikes from Sihanoukville, according to Westerners in Kampot who say speculation is rife that local authorities collaborate with the KR to hit the trains.
"There is no question there is contact between the Government and Khmer Rouge. I know how to get hold of people who are in contact with the Khmer Rouge. A lot of villagers go back and forth. Everyone shares in the proceeds from hostage negotiations. The woman who got out the four Chinese businessmen now has all kinds of wealth," said one Westerner who asked not to be named.
"I've not heard of anyone being killed after being taken. They are killed in the ambushes," said another aid worker. "It's the same process each time. There is mass confusion when the train is hit and people run for it or hide in bushes."
Asked how many people were taken in the last ambush, she said,"I'm not sure. It's so much a feature of life here, whether people are taken or not is no longer topic of conversation. Now it is, only because foreigners are involved. Cambodians are taken a lot, a lot-for tax collection purposes. This is often economic driven."
Usually the passengers who are not killed in the ambush are taken at gunpoint to Phnom Vour (Vine Mounain) where those who can afford a ransom are held until their families bring money, food or other goods.
"There are long standing complaints from the Khmer Rouge that they are not getting goodies from Pailin or wherever.
"The contacts who have told us about this [July 26] incident, say the Khmer Rouge stopped the train because they were hungry, and there is probably some truth in that because they hit villages when they need food.
"They consistantly hit up villages after harvest time to take rice," she said.
The day after the Kompong Trach ambush, a village northeast of Chuk on Route 3 was attacked and 1,000 eggs destined for markets in Phnom Penh were taken.
Several pockets of KR live in the Kampot area and have influence over about 10 percent of the population, according to the Westerners.