K AMPOT - A Cambodian general said the three Western hostages were executed by the Khmer Rouge, and bullet wounds were apparent on their bodies.
The general, who would not be named, said the graves were found on Oct 30 near the KR base where they were being held at Khnach Prei of Andoung Chik village near Phnom Vour. The general said soldiers were led to the graves by a KR defector.
He quoted the defector, who he refused to name, as saying that the three hostages were gunned down by one of KR Gen Nuon Paet's security guards on Sept 28.
Briton Mark Slater, 28, Australian David Wilson, 29, and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 28, were kidnapped after a train ambush on July 26.
Second Premier Hun Sen, during a brief visit to Kampot on Nov 1, expressed his condolences to the victims' families, saying: "It is a deep sorrow and a great loss for the Royal Government [of Cambodia].
"We deeply regret that the victims died unjustly, without having weapons, but rather cameras in their hands."
He condemned the KR for "murder and genocide" and called on the international community to speed up trial of the outlawed group's leaders: Pol Pot, Ta Mok, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan.
"The KR is the group to be condemned for genocide in Cambodia and killing of the foreign hostages both times," he added, referring to another incident that took place on Route 4 on April 11. In that incident, three foreigners were abducted then killed, allegedly by the KR.
Hun Sen said: "The KR is no longer a political organization but rather an international terrorist one."
The Cambodian government was not the one to be held responsible for the deaths of the foreigners and it has been victimized by problems arising from the hostage-taking, he said.
Based on intelligence reports, Hun Sen confirmed that the three backpackers were killed on Sept. 28 - nearly one month before the government army launched a full-scale assault on the KR base in the mountain on Oct. 24.
"So, it does not mean that because of the government attack the KR killed the hostages.
"They did so before the government attacked them," he said.
More than 3,000 ground forces accompanied by artillery were used by the government to mop up about 300 guerrillas scattered around the Phnom Vour base on Oct 25. They also took 169 weapons and brought out 600 peasants.
In previous interviews with the Post, Khmer Rouge defectors maintained that government shelling killed the hostages, not a Khmer Rouge execution.
On Wednesday Nov 2, representatives of the three countries, Australia, France and Britain, were taken to see the bodies of their countrymen at the site where the graves were first found. The bodies were due to be brought to Phnom Penh on Nov 3.
The press came under attack from Hun Sen who viewed coverage of the hostage crisis as jeopardizing ransom negotiations in August and encouraged the KR to seek political advantage over the deal.
He said: "I don't blame the press, but they seem to be pushing the hostages to die."
Colonel Chhouk Rin, who masterminded the train hijacking, split up with Paet and defected with 76 others to the government on Oct 15. He was instructed to lead the government forces to attack his former boss.
Asked whether Rin would face any legal action for his act of killing the train passengers and kidnapping the foreigners, Hun Sen replied: "Part of the affair is over. They [Chhouk Rin and his men] must have the right to join the national community and be ordinary citizens."
"We can not take this chance to punish them as they already left the KR to live with the national community. So, this issue should be put aside."
Wilson's family criticized Cambodia's amnesty policy, where the government allowed rebel defectors responsible for the kidnapping to be made corporals in the Cambodian army.
"This is confirmation that the greatest concern of the Cambodian government is to improve their own position against the KR, rather than to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against the international community," Wilson's family said in a statement released on Oct 30.
"They have seized the opportunity to do so at the expense of foreigner's lives."
They also blamed the Australian government for its failure to exert pressure on the Cambodian government to secure safety of the hostages and accused Canberra of running a scare campaign to silence David Wilson's relatives.
The affair was an embarrasssment to the Australian government, they said, as it was trying to foster better relations with Cambodia.
In the wake of news of the deaths, the British Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement advising their subjects not to visit Cambodia. Warning posters were put up around the city.