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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - More hostages "inevitable"

More hostages "inevitable"

F EARS of another foreign hostage crisis are growing, with evidence that the Khmer Rouge are planning more kidnappings.

"It's just a matter of time," said one foreign diplomat.

Western embassies have received intelligence indicating that kidnapping attempts are likely during the coming dry season, the British ambassador, Paul Reddicliffe, told a meeting of British NGOs on Nov 1.

On the same day the British embassy upgraded its travel advice, warning its citizens not to travel to Cambodia because of "serious security risks".

The embassy statement described Phnom Penh as relatively safe but strongly advised against traveling out of the capital.

Some NGOs are withdrawing staff from smaller districts and villages because of such warnings, and following confirmation of the deaths of the three Phnom Vour (Vine Mountain) hostages.

But even main towns, considered safer, are not immune to kidnap attempts.

The security committee of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia late last month advised members that local NGO staff in Battambang had been offered money to take expatriates to specific locations at pre-determined times. The kidnapping threats had begun a month earlier.

There is also concern that tourists are still exposing themselves to unnecessary risks in Cambodia.

An Australian Embassy security briefing for Australians and Canadians on Nov 10 was told of a backpacker who told the embassy he intended taking the train to Sihanoukville.

The Sihanoukville train - which Phnom Vour hostages Briton Mark Slater, Australian David Wilson and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet were abducted from - has been ambushed 18 times by Khmer Rouge guerrillas or other bandits since January 1993.

Information Minister Ieng Mouly said the Khmer Rouge were likely to increase terrorist activity against Khmers and foreigners soon.

The guerrillas would try to divert the government and military's attention from the "imagined, supposed large offensive against them" in the dry season.

But he denied any such offensive was planned, saying the army would concentrate on containing the Khmer Rouge within existing enclaves.

Asked about the British Embassy effectively declaring Cambodia a no-go destination for tourists, he said areas like Siem Riep and Sihanoukville were safe, providing one traveled by plane.

"Despite some reports which have been sent out of Cambodia, the reality is there is still safety and security for tourists. The embassy has a right to advise its tourists, but we do our best to provide safety."

As the prospect of more kidnappings looms, Britain, Australia and France are reviewing the events which led to the deaths of Slater, Wilson and Braquet.

France has ordered a judicial inquiry, headed by a top terrorism expert. Australia and Britain are also reviewing what lessons can be learned, and the deaths of their citizens will be subjected to coroners' hearings.

At least two of the bodies are believed to have suffered serious head wounds, apparently from bludgeoning. At least one may have been shot, according to reports from Khmer Rouge defectors and from eyewitnesses who heard gunshots after they were led away into the jungle.

Those responsible for the tourists' kidnapping and deaths remain unpunished.

Colonel Chhouk Rin, who led the train ambush which netted the three but was granted amnesty after defecting to the Cambodian army, has returned to his old stomping ground.

Mouly said Rin had been appointed the army officer in charge of Phnom Vour, where civilian families who lived under the Khmer Rouge were being returned to their villages.

Rin's boss, General Nuon Paet - who escaped his Phnom Vour stronghold before it was overrun by government forces on Oct 25 - remains a fugitive.

Mouly said the Khmer Rouge defectors, interrogated by military intelligence officers, believed Paet was probably in Takeo province, headed for Kompong Speu.

Mouly reaffirmed that Rin had been granted amnesty from criminal charges, and that the government held Paet and the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for the hostages' deaths.

Paet, meanwhile, should not be short of cash while on the run - he is believed to have left Phnom Vour with about $30,000 of the Cambodian government's money.

The money - part of a failed ransom attempt less than a month after the three hostages were seized - should have helped ease his escape through the thousands of government soldiers besieging Phnom Vour.

Part of a covert deal to try to buy the freedom of one of the hostages, the money was given to Paet about Aug 18-20, according to government and diplomatic sources.

The deal, which could have led to similar ones for the remaining hostages had it worked, was the closest the government came to securing the captives' release.

Its failure destroyed early attempts to negotiate a bloodless solution to the crisis. Some say the hostages' fates were virtually sealed from the day the deal fell through.

New details of behind-the-scenes moves to free the hostages during the three-month crisis paint a picture of complicated, counter-acting negotiations by factions within the government and military.

Military commanders, meanwhile, ordered repeated shelling of the mountain, apparently against their orders from above.

The hostages' embassies are said by some to have taken a softly-softly approach in their dealings with the government for fear of upsetting its leaders, and in the belief it was best-placed to manage affairs.

At one point there were as many as seven intermediaries trying to negotiate the hostages' freedom, proposing ransom deals involving up to $1 million, sources say.

Those who had access to Pate's mountain base to negotiate included representatives of the central government, Phnom Penh's military and intelligence chiefs, the local Kampot bureaucracy, and the district's army and military intelligence commanders.

Some were "freelancers", trying to make a buck out of the hostages' predicament by seeking fees for themselves, without any mandate to negotiate.

It was an open secret from the start of the hostage crisis that the government was considering a ransom deal, though it has never publicly admitted money exchanged hands.

The hostages' countries have a policy of not paying ransoms but decided to privately turn a blind eye to any attempt by the Cambodian government to do so.

One source said the foreign embassies' message to the government was along the lines of "we won't give money but we can't tell you what to do, just get the hostages off the mountain".

Soon after the three tourists were kidnapped on July 26, the government was offering an amnesty, a ceasefire and ransom money in exchange for their release. A deal was due to go down to buy the release of one of the hostages, believed to be Braquet, around the time that first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh left Cambodia for a Malaysian trip on Aug 17.

Sources say that the money, believed to be between $30,000-40,000, was delivered to Paet's mountain base.

The government planned a press conference to announce the release of one hostage - to be presented as a "goodwill" move by the KR - but Braquet was not freed.

Why not remains unconfirmed, though foreign observers point to the Kampot military's failure to abide by the ceasefire part of the deal. Journalists and diplomats in the area at the time reported army shelling Phnom Vour.

Others blame the media, in part, for making the situation more political than financial by publicizing the Khmer Rouge leadership's attacks on foreign military aid to Cambodia's army.

Ranariddh, on his return from Malaysia on Aug 21, alluded to the failed ransom deal when he lashed out at Western media and diplomats for "complicating" the situation.

"We were in the process of releasing them but now too many cooks already spoil the cuisine," he said, before ordering all foreign media and diplomats out of Kampot.

Within two days, Khmer Rouge leaders - but not Paet - had set an Aug 30 deadline for an end to foreign military aid to Cambodia saying that ransom money was not what was being sought.

Mouly, in an interview on Nov 12, would not confirm how much money was paid to Paet, saying: "I don't have the details."

The government did not have a policy of paying for hostages, he said, "but we had stated clearly that we would do the best to save the lives of the hostages.

"Secretly, we were ready to negotiate and to pay."

One foreign observer says the ransom attempt - by providing money directly to Paet before the crisis could grow more political - had been the best chance of freeing the hostages.

Once it fell through, the prospect of the hostages getting out alive were greatly reduced. Another foreigner closely involved with the events says the failed deal caused a gulf of mistrust between Paet and the government's negotiators which was never bridged.

Talks continued sporadically, until long after the hostages were killed, but were carried out in an almost impossible environment.

As the Phnom Penh government denied army shelling was continuing, those on the ground near the mountain saw that was often not the case.

Confusion reigned even in Kampot and Phnom Vour.

Kampot military intelligence chiefs negotiating with Paet were at one stage telling him there would be no more shelling at the same time as regular army units were bombing the mountain.

Diplomats privately allege that the Kampot military was out of control and not listening to their political masters.

They say the military - which by Aug 14 had up to 10,000 troops surrounding the mountain, large numbers transferred from Battambang - was more determined to "take the mountain" and wipe out a troublesome Khmer Rouge enclave than concerned for the lives of three foreigners.

The military's determination to wipe out Paet's base is alleged to have grown after KR counter attacks on Kampot police and army targets, including one which killed seven soldiers in early September.

The date of the hostages' killing remains unconfirmed, but several sources point toward it being in early September, prior to the Sept 28 date cited by KR defectors.

While responsibility for the killings obviously lies with the Khmer Rouge, the reviews and inquiries into the affair should have plenty else to consider.

The hostages' countries are adamant that they had always demanded that military action not be used to end the crisis - yet that appears exactly what happened even while talks were in progress.

Unanswered questions remain about how much Britain, Australian and France - particularly the latter two with their long-standing aid commitments to Cambodia - were doing to influence the government's negotiations and demand that it control its army.

The communication between the three embassies and the government was poor. A British, French and Australian Ambassadors' audience with Ranariddh on Oct 28 - long after the hostages were in their graves - was the first granted since the crisis began, despite repeated requests.

Then Foreign Minister, Prince Sirivudh, was responsible for liasing with the embassies, despite not being directly in charge of negotiations or military operations.

Some say the three countries took a low-key approach to dealing with the government, anxious not to upset Ranariddh following his Aug 21 outburst at diplomats and the media.

One diplomat denied the embassies were sitting on their hands, saying that pressure was put on the Cambodian government to try to influence its actions. But the three countries had to acknowledge that it had the best knowledge and experience to deal with the situation.

"This is a very different kind of country," the diplomat said.

Despite the apparent lack of information from the government, the embassies were not ignorant about events in Phnom Vour.

Embassy representatives were regularly in Kampot, and later interviewed defectors and civilians who came down from the mountain to gather intelligence on the hostages.

"The ambassadors knew more about what was going on than Ranariddh would have," according to one government source who said communication between the prime minister and the Interior Ministry and army was poor.

The ultimate issue to be considered in the aftermath of the hostages' deaths is whether the approaches taken to the situation - by both the Royal Government and the foreign nations - were the wisest. Could the hostages, as citizens of their countries, and as money-spending tourists in Cambodia, have expected more?

The issue of paying ransoms for hostages - while some consider it would lead to an open season on foreigners, others privately insist it is the safest solution - needs considerable debate.

Is it right for foreign nations to publicly abhor the idea of such ransoms while privately turning a blind eye if someone else forks out the money?

Other, more peripheral questions which remain unanswered include why the United States saw fit to send two delegations of high-level officials - who publicly spoke about US military aid to Cambodia - during the heat of the hostage crisis in September.

The visits clearly infuriated the KR, whose illicit radio broadcasts declared that foreigners who got involved with Cambodia's war must accept full responsibility for "all the consequences".

As the repercussions and recriminations over the hostages' deaths continue, one thing is clear - any further kidnappings of foreigners will require a far more sophisticated and coordinated response if they are to have any chance of avoiding the same fate as Slater, Wilson and Braquet.



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