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Hopes for deminers soar, fall, stall

Hopes for deminers soar, fall, stall

H OPES that kidnapped deminer Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were

alive soared Nov 21 after a senior military officer told reporters the men would

return to Phnom Penh the following day.

But hope turned to disappointment after the two men failed to appear as promised.

A British embassy official said the pair may have been with a group of rebel KR,

which left Anlong Veng earlier this month, believed to be heading south for government

lines.

He said intercepted KR radio traffic indicated the group was being chased by hardliners.

However, none of the intercepted radio communications referred specifically to the

two hostages.

The fate of Howes and his Cambodian colleague - kidnapped by armed men eight months

ago - remained unclear at press time after they failed to appear at a Nov 22 rendezvous

claimed to have been arranged by General Nhek Bun Chhay.

Bun Chhay, a Deputy Chief of Staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), said

Howes had "escaped" the Khmer Rouge base of Anlong Veng on Nov 5, together

with 151 KR soldiers who intended to defect to the government.

"He is currently about 20 km north of Stoeng in Kompong Thom...he is well but

very thin," Bun Chhay said.

The general said Howes - a former British soldier who was working as a demining instructor

with the Mines Advisory Group - had been forced to teach the KR how to make improvised

land mines.

"They [the Khmer Rouge] treated him well but they made him work during the day

and locked him up at night," Bun Chhay said, adding he had talked to the rebel

group by radio.

When asked by the Post Nov 26 why the men had not arrived as predicted, Bun Chhay

said he could make no comment on the issue.

Howes was kidnapped along with members of a MAG de-mining platoon near the Angkor

Wat temple site on March 26.

According to first hand accounts he was offered a chance of freedom later the same

day in order to collect an undisclosed ransom for the release of his colleagues.

However, Howes refused the opportunity, opting instead to stay with his men. The

kidnappers then freed all but Howes and his intepreter.

The prime suspects in the kidnapping are said to be a group of KR defectors who were

subsequently sent to Poipet to fight their former comrades.

They quickly deserted the battlefield and drove back to Siem Reap in a commandeered

armored personnel carrier before snatching the deminers and moving north into hardline

KR territory at Anlong Veng on the Thai-Cambodia border.

Since then authorities have received conflicting information about the fate of the

two men.

In late August the Bangkok Post quoted a Khmer Rouge officer as saying Howes had

been executed and that his Cambodian colleague had died of malaria. The officer claimed

the execution was linked to a rebellion by KR dissidents.

However, a September 1 Khmer Rouge radio broadcast denied the report saying the rebel

group "was never involved in this story."

British officials have remained tight lipped throughout the crisis saying little

more than they have received a high level of cooperation from Cambodian authorities

but very little verifiable information.

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