K AMPOT - The defections of hundreds of Khmer Rouge last month have cleared this southern
province of guerrilla activity, according to officials, as speculation is rife over
whether wanted rebel General Nuon Paet may be among the defectors.
Paet was reportedly shot dead by his bodyguards in late October, the defectors have
told local authorities, but some people in Kampot dismiss those reports as propoganda.
Paet - the subject of an arrest warrant for the murders of three foreign tourists
at his former Phnom Vour base in 1994 - is alive under a different name, according
to one local source with links to the KR.
But it remains unclear whether Paet is with the defectors, based near remote Koh
Sla, formerly the KR's regional command base, or whether he has gone into hiding
Army chiefs in Kampot are adamant that Paet is dead, but foreign embassies and officials
in Phnom Penh remain unconvinced. No body has been recovered.
Whether Paet is dead or alive, the lastest defections have removed the last of his
forces in the province, military officials say. If so, that should be a boon to aid
and development projects in a province with a bad security reputation.
Between 300-700 guerrillas, according to differing estimates, defected last month
around Koh Sla district, about 30km from Phnom Vour, and nearby Phnom Kamchay. They
remain in the area.
The troops are believed to be either those who escaped from Phnom Vour with Paet
during the hostage crisis, or who were based elsewhere in the province.
The defectors told authorities that Paet had opposed their defection and was killed
in a shoot-out with his bodyguards on Phnom Kamchay in late October.
Former KR colonel Chhouk Rin - a one-time aide to Paet who defected to the government
in 1994 - said last week that he believed Paet was dead.
Rin, who spent a month negotiating the Koh Sla defections, said Paet had been angry
at his efforts.
"Nuon Paet was stubborn. He issued a lot of orders to his people fight my men,
but many of them defied his orders and responded to him with gunfire. His own bodyguards
Rin said he had been told Paet's body was on top of Phnom Kamchay, but could not
But another former KR in Kampot, who would not be named, said Paet was alive.
"I think he has been killed but in name, not in body. It is sort of a secret.
It is better for everyone to think he is dead," said the man, who defected from
the KR some years ago but has friends and relatives among the Koh Sla defectors.
Local NGOs in Kampot town had heard differing reports. But one Khmer NGO worker said
a visiting policeman, who was based near Phnom Kamchay, had told her he had heard
nothing about Paet being killed there.
The KR's clandestine radio based in northwestern Cambodia has also denied Paet's
death, calling him a "hero" still loyal to the cause.
Kampot Royal army chiefs Yim Bunthoeun and Meas Chankiry said they believed the defectors'
accounts of Paet's death, but had not pressed them for precise details.
"We don't want to frighten the defectors. We are trying to go step-by-step to
get them to trust us," said Bunthoeun, the province's army chief of staff.
He said he did not know the site of Paet's death, and would not be attempting to
verify it. "This is no longer our jurisdiction. Those questions depend on the
Chankiry said that most of Paet's former soldiers and villagers hated him, and "would
not hide him from us if he were alive."
Military police in Kampot town expressed the same sentiments. One MP, asked about
Paet's body, said that "maybe his bodyguards buried or cremated him."
Paet - blamed for giving the order to kill the foreign hostages, a Briton, a Frenchman
and Australian, in 1994 - is the only man wanted in connection with the deaths. Chhouk
Rin, who first kidnapped the three, was granted amnesty.
Prosecutors at Kampot court said they had not received any official report on Paet's
death, and a warrant issued for his arrest would remain valid until they did so.
In Phnom Penh, an experienced Cambodian political and military observer said it was
quite plausible that the local army in Kampot would attempt to shield Paet for fear
that his arrest would fuel a long-standing debate about the government's handling
of the hostage crisis.
Foreign diplomats said they had heard varying reports about Paet, including that
he had died, defected or disappeared.
"The three Ambassadors made representations that we wanted to see this man brought
to justice," said a diplomat from one of the hostages' countries. "The
Cambodian authorities are well aware of that.
"So there is no divergence of opinion - it's just a matter of how long it will
take for these reports to be resolved and the truth to come out."
Minister of Foreign Affairs Ung Huot said Paet's death was only a rumor, but the
government would "keep an eye" on the situation. Asked what the government
had told the three embassies, he said: "We don't know what to say."