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Aust govt reviews hostage tragedy

Aust govt reviews hostage tragedy

C ANBERRA - Australia's ambassador to Phnom Penh, Tony Kevin, has told an Australian

Senate inquiry that Cambodia's chief hostage negotiator complained frequently that

artillery shelling was interfering with ransom negotiations to free three Western

hostages held by the Khmer Rouge in 1994.

Kevin told the inquiry Nov 25 that the Cambodian Government adopted a strategy to

encircle and intermittently shell the mountain base in Kampot province where the

hostages were being held.

He said that one of the Australian embassy's main tasks at the time was to "try

and maintain at the forefront of government's mind" that it had to leave the

negotiator, General Chea Dara, room to negotiate.

Until now the former Australian Labor Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs

and Trade in Canberra has attempted to play down claims that Cambodian Government

military action endangered the hostages' lives.

The inquiry set up to investigate the execution of Australian David Wilson, 28, of

the Melbourne suburb of Seaford, has made contact with General Dara, offering him

a trip to Australia if he would testify about the circumstances of his sacking as

negotiator before defectors told of the hostages' deaths.

Kevin - who flew from Phnom Penh to Canberra to testify - said that after the bodies

of Wilson, Mark Slater, 28, of Britain and Jean-Michel Braquet, 29, of France were

discovered in shallow graves, General Dara went to Paris after apparently falling

out with high-ranking people in Phnom Penh.

Asked what the falling out was about Kevin said that maybe he "complained too

loudly and too often about the...military operations affecting his negotiations."

Kevin said there were also suggestions of Cambodian military factional rivalry and

jealousies that General Dara had been given a US$150,000 ransom, which was returned

to the Cambodian Finance Ministry almost 12 months later with $10,000 missing.

However, in a statement read to the inquiry Kevin defended the actions of the Cambodian

Government and military, saying they "did all they could to save the hostages

within the limits of their own capacities."

Kevin said that the government and military clearly wanted to eliminate the Khmer

Rouge from the southern Kampot province by taking the mountain base where the hostages

were being held although reports of "pitched battles" were exaggerated.

He said the record shows the government and military were responsive to Australia's

priority concern to save the hostages while at the same time trying to take the mountain.

"Within the limits imposed by their own lack of administrative resources and

by their inexperienced and factionalized political system, the Cambodians did their

best to respond to our concerns," Kevin said.

Kevin rejected suggestions by Cambodia's former Finance Minister, Sam Rainsy, of

a government or military conspiracy to kill the hostages.

"There is no evidence of this," he said.

"There were, as the record shows, some evident sensitivities and clumsiness

in the management of information at various key stages of the crisis, especially

in the confused final weeks."

Kevin said there were a few "corrupt and self-seeking individuals who sought

at times to profit from the situation."

Kevin testified that one Cambodian military officer, General Eng Hong, twice went

to the Australian embassy and made a corrupt offer to have the hostages released

for $1 million.

The embassy complained to Cambodian authorities but Eng Hong remained involved in

the case and even tried to run consular officials over in a truck in which he collected

the bodies.

General Hong apparently wanted to sell photographs of the bodies.

Asked about reports of rivalry between the two Prime Ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh

and Samdech Hun Sen, Kevin said relations between the two are now "brittle and

distrustful." But he said that at the time of the hostage crisis the two leaders

were working hard to function as a coalition government.

A senior officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Robert Hamilton,

told the inquiry that the department has never sought to disguise the shortcomings

of the Cambodian Government that arise from "the destruction and horrors of

the last 30 years of Cambodian history."

Hamilton said the department was convinced that the Cambodian Government did everything

in its power to free the hostages.

"It certainly did incomparably more than it has ever done for the hundreds,

if not thousands, of Cambodians abducted in similar situations, he said.

"It was never possible for the three Western countries, let alone Australia

by itself, to seek to take over the case. And it was accepted as such by the [Australian]

government and all other governments that ever expressed a view."

Hamilton said: "The brutal deaths of David Wilson and his companions remain

the responsibility of the Khmer Rouge..."

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