Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CFF boss arrested in USA

CFF boss arrested in USA

CFF boss arrested in USA

The government has said the arrest of Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF) president

Chhun Yasith for plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen was the result of a

five-year joint effort with authorities in the United States.

Officers arrested Yasith, 48, without incident at his Long Beach, California, home

on June 1. He is being held in police custody.

"This arrest has come from the cooperation of the Cambodian National Police

and US Federal Bureau of Investigation," said Prum Sokha, secretary of state

for the Ministry of Interior.

"The US is leading the fight against terrorism, and they worked with us to arrest

Yasith," Sokha said. "I think that this [arrest] is not only from the demands

of the Cambodian government, but from also the world."

Yasith is the self-proclaimed instigator of the November 2000 attacks on the Ministry

of Defense and Council of Ministers buildings in Phnom Penh, code named "Operation

Popcorn". Seventy CFF members stormed the ministries armed with rifles and rocket

launchers. Eight people were killed and more than 12 were wounded.

Forty-five CFF attackers were captured during the incident, but Sokha said the government

was not going to be satisfied until they arrested the group's ringleader.

"We condemn that terrorist attack, and we wanted to punish who was behind it,"

he said.

Almost five years after the attack, the Los Angeles Federal Grand Jury issued two

indictment charges against Yasith on May 31.

The first charge is for violating the US Neutrality Act, which prohibits conspiring

to kill or damage property in a foreign country or carry out military expeditions

against a nation with whom the United States is at peace. The second is against Yasith

and his wife, Sras Pech, 39, for fraudulent tax activities in their Los Angeles accounting

business. If found guilty, Yasith could face up to life imprisonment, and Pech could

face up to 35 years.

Only three weeks prior to his arrest, Yasith had been forthcoming in publicizing

his group's activities and denied the group was an international terrorist cell.

"CFF is not a terrorist group, but the anti-communist group based in Long Beach

and openly our office is licensed by a Secretary of State of the US," Yasith

wrote in halting English May 6 in an e-mail to the Post.

"CFF's leaders are not hiding in a grave or hollow along the mountain somewhere

in the world as Bin Laden," he said.

Yasith founded the CFF in California in 1998. He had previously been a member of

the Sam Rainsy Party, but was asked to resign after insisting the party's non-violent

approach towards Hun Sen's government was useless.

He launched the group officially in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, near Poipet in 1998.

According to Yasith, by 2001 CFF had 500 members based in the US and 5,000 in Cambodia.

CFF's stated aim was to overthrow the Cambodian People's Party, and oust Hun Sen,

who they regard as leading a communist regime.

The groups' strongest act of aggression was the November 2000 attack. The group has

also claimed responsibility for other minor incidents; plotting to blow up a karaoke

bar and fuel depot outside Phnom Penh in 1999, resulting in five arrests, and an

April 22 graffiti attack on the walls of the French embassy in Phnom Penh.

Seven CFF were also arrested in 2003 for allegedly planning a terrorist attack in

Koh Kong.

Despite their history, Yasith said since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World

Trade Center towers in New York there has been no pressure from the US on CFF activities.

According to a 2004 Center for Defense Information report on CFF, the government

appeared to be focusing its attention on international terrorist groups such as Jemiah

Islamaya, and "the CFF appears as a minor league group that has already seen

its heyday".

But Sokha said the long wait to arrest Yasith was due to the technical process involved

for both Cambodian and US authorities.

Yasith and Pech are expected to appear in the Los Angeles District Court in the beginning

of June.

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