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Ransom bungle alleged

POLITlCAL brinksmanship between Cambodia’s then co-prime ministers and inaction by the governments of three backpackers taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge in 1994 led to their deaths, a former Australian diplomat has alleged.

Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet were slain by Khmer Rouge insurgents in September, 1994 after being taken hostage during an ambush on a train in Preah Sihanouk province that July which left 13 Cambodians dead.

Before the men were executed, Cambodian armed forces led an assault on the Khmer Rouge-controlled area of Phnom Voar, where they were held hostage.

Alastair Gaisford, who was consul at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh in 1994, has alleged that then co-prime minister Hun Sen derailed a ransom deal in order to undermine his rival senior counterpart Norodom Ranariddh,  who negotiated the agreement.

In a submission to an Australian Senate inquiry probing the country’s responses to hostage situations, Gaisford said Hun Sen had deliberately launched an offensive immediately before the deal was to be completed and without the consent of the victims’ governments. “In fact, release deal agreed to be done that Friday (August 19, 1994) [was] as a ‘present’ for the Cambodian PM Prince Ranariddh’s birthday,” Gaisford’s submiss-ion reads.

“However, clearly, the other Cambodian PM, Hun Sen, did not want that positive outcome, so intervened militarily on the day before the release – entirely contrary to his government’s guarantee ‘not to act adversely without consultation and prior consent’.”

Gaisford also alleged that, as part of the deal, the Australian government had negotiated a US$150 million ransom, to be paid in disguise through the Cambodian government, rendering its “no negotiation, no ransom’’  policy “a complete public and parliamentary lie”.

Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Quick and Press Reaction Unit, declined to comment specifically on Gaisford’s allegations but said life sentences handed to those tried for the murders showed the courts had done their job.

Khmer Rouge commanders Nuon Paet, Chhouk Rin and Sam Bith have all been found guilty in connection to the kidnapping and handed life sentences.

“We tried our best through different approaches [of] how to get them released from the bloody hands of the Khmer Rouge, but we are so sorry that we could not save them,” he said in an email.

“As you know, the Khmer Rouge killed everybody.”

The Australian embassy was unable to comment by press time yesterday.  

Chea Dara, then chief negot-iator for Norodom Ranariddh, declined to comment and Nhek Bunchay, a FUNCINPEC party commander who led forces assaulting the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Voar, could not be reached for comment.

But Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, said he doubted that Australia at the time had enough political leverage to halt Hun Sen’s military offensive.

“The one thing I can say that I don’t think is on the public record is that Australia considered, and rejected, a Special Forces mission to free David Wilson,”  Thayer said.

“Australia could not mount an independent hostage recovery effort on its own, and to try and co-operate with local forces and Hun Sen’s government was too risky and could compromise their forces with the information that could leak.”

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