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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Howes' secret lies in "jungle law"

Howes' secret lies in "jungle law"

ANLONG VENG - The collapse of this Khmer Rouge stronghold has produced fresh accounts

of the fate of British hostage Christopher Howes, with everyone agreeing that he

is dead but differing on how and when.

Senior- and lower-level defectors all said that Howes and his Khmer translator Houn

Hourth, who worked for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), were executed after their

kidnapping by guerrillas in March 1996. While some said they were killed soon after

their capture, others said that they were kept prisoner for months and possibly longer

than a year.

A rare eyewitness report came from former rebel battalion commander Oun Nin, who

claimed to have seen Howes working at Anlong Veng's ammunition workshop early last

year.

"I saw him once when I went to collect some ammunition," said Nin, aged

56, interviewed at Ta Mok's former house April 15. "He was training people.

I saw him with a group of 20-30 people, teaching them to make flying mines."

The KR's munitions workshop - situated roughly 5km from Anlong Veng town, and reportedly

destroyed in recent fighting with Mok's loyalists - produced home-made AK-47 bullets,

B40 rocket propellant and landmines.

Howes, a former British army officer with explosives and demining training, has long

been rumored to have been put to work in the factory. Cambodian army officers credited

him with devising the so-called "flying mines", which jump up before exploding,

introduced by KR guerrillas in 1996.

Oun Nin, former commander of Battalion 93 of the KR's Division 980, said he saw Howes

only briefly and did not speak to him. He said Howes looked "thin" but

was unable to offer any further details.

Nin and other defectors said that the munitions factory had been under Ta Mok's control,

and they knew of no former workers there who had defected to the government. The

factory chief, a Mr Soth, and eight others were killed in an explosion there last

year, according to Nin. He said he had heard that Howes was killed "sometime

in 1997", but not in that explosion.

Nin's account was directly contradicted by other defectors. "It's not true that

Howes was working at the ammunition factory. I had some of my boys living near there,

and they never saw him," said Div 980 military chief Yim San.

A senior Div 980 political cadre, Raem, agreed: "I heard a rumor that Howes

was helping in the mine and bullet factory, then... I spoke to the man in charge

there and he said it was not true."

Raem said he first heard of Howes' kidnapping several months after it happened. "I

heard from Ta Mok that he was kidnapped by Division 912," Mok's most loyal division.

Raem believed that Howes had been held hostage until the Pol Pot-Ta Mok fight last

June, when "all the important prisoners were killed".

"I spoke to a frontline man [a Major Em of Div 912, now still with Mok]. He

said he saw some men taking Howes to the killing place. The men came back without

Howes. Later he tried to find the grave."

Raem said that Major Em told him he could show him the area where Howes was likely

to have been killed. "[But] it may be difficult. It's very hard to find out

when Ta Mok kills someone. They do it at night and put their bodies in the jungle.

We call it 'jungle law'."

In Howes' case, "they put mines around the body to stop people from taking the

bones," Raem said. (The defectors are aware of the potential value of Howes'

remains; the Post was approached by one person inquiring how much it would

pay for them.)

Raem said Major Em had told him that Houn Hourth, Howes' translator, had been killed

at the same time as the Briton.

That contradicts the only previous eyewitness account, from Div 912 defector Phuan

Phy, who has said that Hourth was executed within several days of the March 26, 1996

abductions. Phy, who said he saw Hourth's body, reported that Howes was kept alive

and handed over to Ta Mok aide general Khem Nguon by a Div 912 colonel, Kong.

Meanwhile, the Anlong Veng defectors' official leader, former Pol Pot regime regional

zone secretary Ke Pauk, has told a different story.

Pauk - who had previously told reporters that he believed Howes to be dead but knew

no details - told a Time magazine correspondent that: "Howes was killed

one week after he was captured." Pauk said a man named Bao killed Howes and

Hourth at an Anlong Veng location called Konleng Pienic Thmei (Place of New Commerce).

Other defectors told the Post that Bao was a former Div 980 commander put

in charge of the KR's "Ministry of Commerce" around 1995. Previously loyal

to Pol Pot, he was now with Ta Mok. No-one said they had heard his name connected

to Howes' death.

All agreed that the answers to the Howes mystery lay with Mok's most senior military

commanders: Ta Them, Khem Nguon and Colonel Kong. Of them, most defectors said the

person who directly dealt with Howes was Khem Nguon - the KR chief of staff, appointed

by Mok after Pol Pot's overthrow, who has given interviews to journalists proclaiming

that the KR have changed their spots.

"If you want to see the body of Christopher Howes, you have to see Mr Nguon,"

said Yim San.

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