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Inside Paet's Vine Mountain hideout

Inside Paet's Vine Mountain hideout

KHNAY PREI, Vine Mountain-With the deaths of the hostages now confirmed a thumbnail sketch can now be gleaned as to how they might have lived in captivity.

Their "prison" - an open, flimsy thatched hut - was mined outside.

There was no sign of toilet or washing facilities. Their frightening captor, General Nuon Paet, lived just 20 meters away.

The three had said in previous interviews that they felt threatened and scared by government shelling - and journalists can now see why. Bomb craters can be seen within 100 meters of where they lived.

Quiet and gloomy, with sporadic showers washing down throughout the afternoon of Oct 27, journalists were taken to see the house of hostage-taker General Nuon Paet.

No gun fire could be heard during that afternoon, however a feeling of menace seemed to rise through the soles of one's feet while pacing along the ox cart trail.

"Don't step aside," everyone was quietly warned along the last 4 km stretch to Paet's house.

Evident were several fresh holes left from the removal of land mines that soldiers and other journalists had only the day before just missed stepping on. They were lucky.

Hiding among the paddy crop on both sides of the trail were sharp bamboo spikes that Paet ordered his soldiers to plant as booby traps before he lost the area.

Compared to his boss Ta Mok who lives in comparitive luxury in the main Khmer Rouge zone in the north, Paet had a more rustic lifestyle in his simple hut, taxing farmers and hijacking trains in his patch.

Paet slipped away from the 3,000 government troops surrounding the mountains. Before fleeing, Paet made up his mind at the last minute to torch his wooden house to stop it falling into his enemies' hands.

A pigeon perched peacefully outside its cage that overlooks the charred skeleton of the house which has an open bunker underneath. The other remainging occupants were two cats, one of which was pregnant and is now being looked after by BBC correspondent Jonathan Miller. He has named it "Madame Paet".

Three empty cattle stables are situated in the front and rear yards of his house. According to Khmer Rouge defectors Paet was fascinated by having well-bred cows and oxen.

About 20 meters from Paet's house was another small thatched hut where the hostages stayed before they disappeared.

The hut was no bigger than six paces in length, maybe three paces wide. It was flimsy, its entrance unbarred and it contained no more than a narrow wooden shelf - with no graffiti or messages - where the three obviously slept, probably very cramped, at night.

Near the left of the entrance was a hole where a mine had been detected and cleared.

Two plastic serum bottles were left at the door, which suggests that Paet was giving one or more of them medical treatment.

There was a small pile of beer cans scattered under banana trees nearby, and not far from that a tiny bunker, possibly a refuge for the hostages to hide from government shelling.

There was nothing around the 100 square meter compound to indicate that government shelling had landed. However, just outside this area are occasional bomb craters.

At 6 pm when the visit ended, journalists and soldiers left on two Russian-made armored personnel carriers and headed back to the Division 5 headquarters at L'ang Toek mountain near Route 3.

The whole of Vine Mountain was in full darkness. The only sounds above the carrier engines were those of wild birds crying.

"Follow the trail of that APC. Don't deviate from it," the commander of the second car told his driver.

The headlights penetrated the darkness and the commander recalled a mission in Pailin where he had to drive with them off.

"Driving with the lights on would have made it much easier for the Khmer Rouge to attack us. We had to use the lightning instead. When the lightning flashed, we could figure out the condition of the road and the distance that we would be able to go. Then we had to stop and wait for the next bolt of lightning," the commander said.

It was a two-hour balancing act on the carriers back home, across several steep valleys all the way from the front line.

The journey crossed Krang Leao district where American aid worker Melissa Himes was abducted by the Khmer Rouge in April and later released.

Som Sothear, a journalist working for Japanese Fuji TV, remained silent throughout the journey. By the time the convoy got to Route 3, Kan Kal, a BBC assistant, was already annoyed with the cat that Miller kept in his camera bag.

At Division 5 headquarters, General Peuo Saran from the General Staff gave three soldiers his Land Cruiser to take us to Kampot town. Kal was still annoyed by the cat that kept crawling around in the car.

Miller said he thought Madame Paet wanted to go back.

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