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Catch a tiger by the toe

Catch a tiger by the toe

THERE has been plenty of US grandstanding over an international criminal tribunal

for the Khmer Rouge leadership, but behind the scenes lurks a more immediate and

delicate issue: suspects must be caught before they can be tried.

One US official recently told the Post that detailed information on the whereabouts

of Ta Mok and other top rebels is now being sought.

And the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that US officials looking to

gain custody of Pol Pot before his death had held secret talks with KR representatives

for the first time in more than two decades in Bangkok.

The US later sent its ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Sheffer, to Phnom

Penh and Bangkok to discuss trying the top membership of the 1975-79 DK regime. He

indicated that American preparations included contingency plans to bring certain

individuals into custody.

Sheffer told reporters in Phnom Penh on April 29 that the Americans are now taking

a more proactive approach to the Khmer Rouge issue than the United Nations because

the need for action has overtaken the need for trial research.

"What we do recognize is that events on the ground are moving precipitously,"

he said. "There is no opportunity for delay... there is only opportunity for

action and we need to take those actions."

He said it was necessary to move quickly so that the international community is prepared

in case top KR leaders are caught.

Asked if the US had made a list of wanted Khmer Rouge, Sheffer first responded that

it would be up to the chief prosecutor of a tribunal to decide such matters, but

he later mentioned that US interests centered on "the most senior living Khmer

Rouge leaders who conceived, planned and directed the crimes against humanity, genocide

and war crimes... during April 1975 to January 1979".

The most spectacular potential option of catching top KR would be for US or Thai

special forces to capture Ta Mok and others.

A covert grab does have a precedent. Israeli special agents in 1960 secretly scouted

a Buenos Aires suburb for months before capturing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Argentina - which was kept unaware of the operation - was outraged that its sovereignty

had been violated, although the Argentinians never demanded the return of Eichmann.

Relations between the two nations were cool for some time.

Analysts agreed that this scenario is fraught with serious political difficulties

and that the presence of mine fields could mean severe casualties for any armed force

not familiar with rebel areas.

One Thai government source told the Post that the Thais would never send their

own military in for such an operation. "We would not accept payment from the

US to have a Thai special forces unit enter Cambodia and capture Khmer Rouge leaders,"

the source said, adding that the recent US push for a trial has Ta Mok and other

senior rebels so paranoid that not even Thai intelligence knows exactly where they

are hiding now.

UN rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg said in a Post interview that he believed

primary responsibility for capture rests with Cambodia. He stressed that no matter

what procedure is used, the Cambodian government must be closely consulted during

every step of an international tribunal effort.

A Phnom Penh-based military analyst said that the most likely event that would lead

to the apprehension of rebel leaders would be if the Cambodian army successfully

gains control of its northern border. Senior Khmer Rouge would then presumably flee

across the border where he said they would be arrested by the Thai military and turned

over to the Americans or the United Nations.

But the analyst noted that the Thai military has kept friendly contact with the KR

since they were first pushed to the border in 1979, and it would be difficult to

convince them to arrest their old mates.

Although Thai military commanders and rank-and-file troops rotate in and out of the

border areas every year, Thai Military Intelligence is a constant presence.

Their stated reason for maintaining contact with the KR is national security - no

matter what the political affiliation of a military presence opposite its border,

Thailand must keep an eye on it.

But the relationship is entangled in business, and convincing the military and big-time

border traders - who deal mostly in timber and gems - to give up their cash cow will

be a hard sell. Besides, once a senior Khmer Rouge is put on trial, one never knows

what he will say about his former business contacts.

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