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Officials accused of hostage scams

R OYAL government officials have came under heavy fire from the international press and diplomatic corps, who accused them of profiteering from the Kampot hostages.

But as the hostage drama unfolded the actions of the journalists was also called into question.

One of the worst allegations was that shelling of the Khmer Rouge base, where the hostages are being held was staged for TV cameras, and offfered for cash to Western journalists.

And Khmer sources claimed that one-star army General Ing Hong travelled up from Kampot to the capital to offer the Australian Embassy a $1 million "package" for the release of the three backpackers. The payment consisted of $250,000 for each of the three men and a $250,000 "administration fee" was added on top.

Gen Hong justified the payment by saying: "I have spent a lot of my own money to send food and material requested by the hostages."

He also held letters from the hostages at arms length in front of newsmen saying: "I will give you everything if you can help us."

At least four officials acting independently were involved in the scandal, said Western journalists, adding that it was hampering attempts to release the three men by confusing the Khmer Rouge as to which intermediary was genuinely acting for Cambodian authorities.

Ministry of Information official Som Vuthea, acting in collaboration with Gen Hong, sold video footage of staged shelling, letters from the hostages and the three men themselves.

This film was sold to the Japanese network NDN for $10,000 and subsequently resold to the British Broadcasting Corporation for an undisclosed amount.

An Australian TV journalist accused Vuthea are duping him into believing the Khmer official was a freelance journalist.

Vuthea offered to obtain footage of military activity around Phnom Vour.

Vuthea then offered film of the hostages, the Australian declined and said the official then refused to give back the $1,500 camera. At press time it had still not been recovered.

"Would police in Australia sell information to journalists, I think not," said the Westerner, explaining how he was fooled.

He also accused Vuthea of offering footage showing mortars being fired, apparently at Phnom Vour.

"It was obviously staged. They were smiling and waving at the camera before they fired the mortar," said the TV newsman.

However sources said the same footage was subsequently sold to the BBC.

Khieu Kanharith, the Secretary of State for Information, faced numerous questions from journalists at a press conference on Aug 20. He pledged an investigation into the allegation. Of those against Vuthea, the Minister said he believed that the official had taken a vacation in Kampot with his family and was acting in a private capacity.

He later told the Post that Vuthea had been demoted as punishment.

The allegations come at a time when the Ministry of Information has been seeking to impose higher ethical standards on Khmer newspapers.

An Aug 17 statement from the Ministry of Information responded to a Reuters report from two days previous which indicated that an official was offering video footage of military activities around Phnom Vour.

The statement read: "The Ministry of Information affirms that such a sale is in breach of its principle. It has ordered an investigation and found that one of its officials has gone to Kampot in his private capacity and had indeed violated that principle. The Ministry has now taken disciplinary action against that official.

"The Ministry reaffirms its unchanging principle of disseminating information to the public with no discrimination and charges. It will not hesitate to take disciplinary measures against its officials found to have violated that principle."

Kanharith later confirmed to the Post that the official referred to was Vuthea.

Premier Prince Ranariddh told journalists on Aug 22: "If they [government officials] are found to be selling messages from the captives they will be immediately sacked and punished."

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