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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A year on, hostages' fate unknown

A year on, hostages' fate unknown

LONDON/PHNOM PENH - The first anniversary of the kidnapping of the kidnapping of

Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) marks a year

of controversy and conjecture - but no certainties - over their fate.

The past year has seen conflicting reports of their whereabouts, raised hopes of

their escape to freedom, the release of one person implicated in their abduction,

and turmoil within the management of MAG itself.

Howes, a British demining expert, and Hourth, his Khmer interpreter, were kidnapped

in a village north of Siem Reap town March 26 last year.

While some Cambodian officials assert that the pair are still alive, MAG says it

has no reliable information to confirm or deny that.

"There have been no reports of any substance to say that they're alive or dead,"

MAG Cambodia program director Ian Brown said last week.

Some Funcinpec officials maintain that the extraordinary is the reality: that Howes

is still alive after a year of being held hostage in the Khmer Rouge base of Anlong

Veng.

"He's still alive, he's alright," Siem Reap governor Toan Chhay said Mar

14, adding that his information came from villagers who "saw one barang"

in Anlong Veng.

"He walks around. Before they told me that [Howes was] in house arrest, he just

stayed in the house. Now they move him to another location in Anlong Veng, then he

can move around his house, more or less, I can say...," said Chhay.

"He's free to walk around. Maybe the Khmer Rouge get the confidence that he

would not flee that place."

Earlier, Funcinpec officials had reported that Howes, a former British army soldier,

was put to work making mines or other explosive devices in the KR base.

It appears that, without new information, little can or is being done to find out

what happened to the two deminers.

In the United Kingdom, MAG's former Cambodia program director, Archie McCarron, claimed

that a recent shake-up of MAG management may damage the handling of the abduction

case.

"If you wanted to damage a kidnapping [rescue operation], I couldn't think of

a better way of doing it," McCarron said of the ousting of three senior staff

including himself.

UK director Roger Briottet said he was forced to resign by MAG trustees late February,

while his assistant Maggie Meouchi was made redundant soon after. McCarron - recalled

to the UK to take up a more senior position - was also laid off.

McCarron, during his time as Cambodia program director, had led MAG efforts to trace

Howes and Hourth, while Briottet was responsible for liaison with the Foreign Office

in London. The pair say that they, along with Meouchi, were the most informed of

any foreigners working on the hostage case.

Briottet said that "after a year we had reached a level of trust and knowledge...

You can't expect someone new to this situation to just look at a file and understand

what's going on, especially in Cambodia".

MAG's new UK director Lou McGrath said the loss of the three staff was part of necessary

cost-cutting, and that Archie McCarron had done a good job in Cambodia.

But he also said that "not only did we feel we had to relook at the [kidnap]

situation, and it had nothing to do with how Archie dealt with it, but we were reviewing

how it was going to be handled in the future."

MAG wanted to "handle the situation in a different way," but he did not

elaborate.

McCarron's replacement in Cambodia, Ian Brown, who has been here less than a fortnight,

said his predecessor's comments about damage to the handling of the kidnap situation

were "not at all fair".

He said that the main efforts were being made by the Foreign Office, through the

British Embassy in Phnom Penh and Scotland Yard detectives based in Siem Reap.

"I don't accept that there will be any change in the way that we are attempting

to find out information about the abduction and the two and attempts to secure their

release."

Ian Brown said that "our policy is until we get a substantiated report [to show

otherwise], we will assume that they are still alive and we will continue to make

every effort to secure both of their releases."

Asked what efforts were yet to be made, unless new information came to light, he

replied: "There's nothing of substance that's been of any help to us since they

were taken."

Howes, now 37, and Hourth were with a team of 25 Khmer deminers initially seized

by a group of men believed to be former KR guerrillas. After Howes refused to act

as a ransom courier, he and Hourth were taken away and the rest released.

The two were reportedly taken to Anlong Veng, but MAG has never publicly accused

the KR.

"The indications we had was that Chris was in Anlong Veng, so we had to assume

it was the KR. Those indications came from official government sources," said

McCarron.

"The Khmer Rouge have always denied it....and we've had no independent sources

to confirm this one way or another. In January, I went around the Thai border and

the Thais hadn't heard anything, and they have always had contact with the KR."

McCarron noted that a local man arrested two days after the abduction - who had allegedly

helped the kidnappers to negotiate their way through a minefield - had subsequently

been released.

"The government captured that fellow who guided the armed group of abductors...captured

him and jailed him..

"And last December or January, he was released. So who got him released and

why?"

Ian Brown, asked if there was any direct evidence to implicate the KR, rogue government

soldiers or bandits, said: "We don't know who took them and until we do, we've

never accused any one faction. All the groups you've mentioned are possibilities."

McCarron confirmed that virtually all information about the kidnapped two had come

from Funcinpec officials, particularly Generals Nhek Bun Chhay and Khan Savoeun.

Last November, Bun Chhay publicly claimed that the two MAG employees had escaped

from Anlong Veng and were heading toward government lines. They never appeared, and

Bun Chhay has since kept mum about the case.

Brown, asked whether MAG had ever got an explanation from Bun Chhay about that false

alarm, said: "I don't know. I haven't seen any documentation about any recorded

conversation."

Officials of the breakaway KR faction led by Ieng Sary have claimed that Howes was

killed by Anlong Veng hardliners around last August.

If Howes and Hourth are still alive and in Anlong Veng, there are indications that

- 15 government negotiators now held hostage there - the pair are not high on the

government's agenda. Any hope of their release seems to rest of the prospect of any

wider peace settlement with the Anlong Veng commanders.

"The English deminer is now a small thing," Khan Savoeun recently told

Reuters. "The big thing is the 15 officials...and national reconciliation.

"If we reach the real national reconciliation in Anlong Veng, everyone will

come out including [Howes]," he said.

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