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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Westerners' murder suspect surfaces in Pailin

Westerners' murder suspect surfaces in Pailin

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NUON PAET: WANTED?

MURDER suspect Nuon Paet is living in Pailin and can apparently travel freely

in Cambodia, despite government assurances to the Australian, French and British

embassies that all steps would be taken to bring the former Khmer Rouge commander

to trial for the 1994 killing of three young tourists.

Officials from all three embassies involved told the Post that rumors have circulated

for some time of Paet's whereabouts, and that they have continued to request action

on an arrest warrant for Paet filed in Kampot's provincial court.

"We expect that those responsible for the deaths of the British, Australian

and French tourists will be apprehended by the Cambodian authorities," British

Ambassador George Edgar said. "We have repeatedly been assured that this will

happen."

The commander of Kampot-based Khmer Rouge at the time, Nuon Paet is wanted for the

1994 murders of Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel

Braquet. The three backpackers were kidnapped that July during a Khmer Rouge ambush

on a train heading from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.

As negotiations - including a ransom offer of more than $100,000 - ensued between

the government and Paet's rebels, the three were murdered after approximately two

months. The killings occurred as trust between the two sides withered - $30,000 was

rumored to have been fruitlessly paid to Paet to free one backpacker, and the Cambodian

army continued to furiously shell Paet's mountain base of Phnom Vour despite the

hostage negotiations.

Nuon Paet has been the subject of partisan gossip and finger-pointing in Cambodia

since his bodyguards reportedly killed him in 1996 before defecting to the government.

Both Funcinpec and CPP military officials traded accusations last year that the other

side was dealing with the wanted rebel commander.

Solid evidence that Paet was still alive came in December 1996 when he was photographed

in Samlot while talking to top Funcinpec General Nhek Bun Chhay before an aborted

visit to the then-defected rebel zone by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Compelling information has since come to light that Nuon Paet has been given a high-level

position in the Pailin municipality and that his status is known but ignored by a

Cambodian government that does not wish to rock the boat with their formidable former

Khmer Rouge allies, the Democratic National Union Movement.

Rumors recently circulated among election workers that a National Election Commission

official had dined with Pailin Governor Ee Chhean and Paet during a recent trip to

the former rebel stronghold to hire Provincial Election Commission members.

The election official in question, Bun Hok, an adviser to NEC President Chheng Phon,

denied to the Post that he had met Nuon Paet, but two separate election workers insisted

that they had been told personally by Bun Hok that he had met the former rebel commander.

Any doubts created by the conflicting stories were laid to rest in Pailin during

Khmer New Year when a high-ranking DNUM official freely revealed that Nuon Paet was

working with Ee Chhean.

"He is Ee Chhean's adviser. He is in Ee Chhean's close circle," said the

former Khmer Rouge official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "[Paet] is

not here now. He has gone to Kampot to be with his family over Khmer New Year."

Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said that his embassy would follow up on the

new information about Paet as much as it could, but that it was up to the Cambodian

government to initiate any action against the suspected murderer.

"Our expectation is that he will be arrested. We are not in the business of

going in there and arresting him ourselves. That's the business of the Cambodian

authorities," Leader said.

Confirmation of Paet's whereabouts comes at a particularly sensitive time for the

Australian Embassy as a Melbourne coroner's inquest into the murder of hostage David

Wilson dredges up old accusations from the Wilson family that their government stood

by passively while the Cambodians sacrificed the hostages in favor of capturing Paet's

Phnom Vour base.

The charge is disputed by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

and the Phnom Penh embassy.

"We believe that everything that was possible to be done was done," Leader

said. "Although it was a tragic outcome, we don't believe it reflects poorly

on the consular services or the governments involved."

Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng confirmed that the government still officially seeks

the arrest of Nuon Paet, but responded to the information of the former rebel's whereabouts

with a curt referral to the Pailin administration. "If Nuon Paet is working

with Ee Chhean, your questions are better proposed to Ee Chhean."

An Interior Ministry official, speaking anonymously, gave a frank response to the

news on Nuon Paet's home and status. "Everybody knows that," he said with

a smile.

According to the Interior official, the government has informally accepted the fact

that Paet has taken on a new name - previous reports have him using Saum Kim or Mith

Morn - and consider the persona of Nuon Paet to be officially dead.

"I think they are content to say that Nuon Paet does not exist anymore. Officially,

he does not. I have not been approached by any of those governments," he said,

adding that the embassies of the concerned nations also appear happier to let the

issue rest.

All diplomats interviewed vehemently denied the Interior official's portrayal of

their embassies' attitudes to the murders of the three backpackers. However, one

did acknowledge that the Cambodian priority is "to build a stable working relationship

with Pailin that could override other issues".

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