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Belgian flies into trouble

Belgian flies into trouble

B ELGIAN deminer Jeanpierre Michel was under fire after he unilaterally organized

a leaflet-drop purporting to help find three missing Westerners in Preah Vihear.

Using a Royal Cambodian Air Force Mi-8 helicopter marked with red

crosses, he dropped 50,000 leaflets on remote mainly Khmer Rouge-held jungle

just south of the northern border with Thailand.

The leaflets were

intended to help find the whereabouts of Belgian couple Michel and Nathalie

Baran and Briton Robert Burndred, who was newly announced as missing along with

an unnamed Thai girlfriend.

But instead of asking villagers to pass

information on to authorities, the leaflets told them to ring Michel at the

Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh or phone the Brussels office of his organization

IDAS, which translates as International Danger and Disaster

Assistance.

The nearest land phone lines to Preah Vihear on the Cambodian

side of the border are nearly 200 km away in Siem Reap. Even if villagers had

easy access to phones they would be unlikely to be able to afford calls to the

capital, let alone internationally.

Sources closes to the investigation

into the missing Belgians dismissed Michel's mission as a publicity stunt

intended to curry favor with the Royal Government which is under international

pressure to clear up the cases.

The former French Foreign Legion captain

said his sole task in Cambodia was to organize the leaflet drop, though sources

said he had been seeking to arrange demining contracts with the Royal

Government.

On July 20, the same morning as Michel flew up north, word

reached Phnom Penh of a new report by Thai military authorities investigating

the cases, which indicated none of the three had crossed the border into

Cambodia.

The source close to the investigation said: "The report said

their disappearance is linked to commercial enterprises, antiquities deals,

which went wrong and are feared dead. The Khmer Rouge are not involved at

all."

Before flying north Michel defended the mission saying: "It is

another step forward to try and establish contact. He admitted the initiative

had not been sanctioned by the families of the missing and described it as

"totally independent."

However he was unable to supply details of the

missing Briton Burndred, saying only he had "heard rumors about

it."

Details of Burndred's disappearance in January were released on the

same day as the flight.

Economist Baran, 31, who worked at the UN's

regional headquarters Escap in Bangkok, disappeared along with Nathalie, 21, on

May 24.

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