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
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..."