P IERRE-YVES CATRY, a Frenchman born in Cambodia, thought the end was seconds away
when, eleven days ago, he stumbled into Khmer Rouge soldiers while joyriding around
rural Cambodia with his mates - one of whom works in the French embassy.
"There was a point when I was certain they were going to execute us one-by-one,"
he recalled, only hours after he and six other motocross enthusiasts were freed by
a KR platoon which had detained them for 24 hours. "I resigned myself to dying."
Catry, 28, and seven other roughriders - two compatriots and five Cambodians - were
cross-country motorcycling through Kompong Chhnang province Oct 20, approximately
70kms northwest of Phnom Penh, when they encountered the band of guerrillas.
After turning left off National Route 5 onto Provincial Route 41, 10kms out of Oudong
town, the bikers had headed west towards Krang Lovea village, approximately 30kms
away, hoping to complete a loop which would take them back to the Cambodian capital
via Kompong Speu, Catry said.
Five kilometres beyond the railway line which joins Phnom Penh to Sisophon, they
ran into a cul-de-sac at the village of Tang Kruos. Since one of the Khmers had hurt
his lower back, they had to stop anyhow to attend to him.
At noon, as the eight were doubling-back, they realised they were surrounded by at
least 30 soldiers, Catry said. They were wearing traditional KR greens and toting
standard-issue AK-47s and B-40 rocket launchers.
"For me, the most difficult part of the ordeal was the first two hours which
were extremely tense," Catry told the Post.
"They ordered us to get down from our bikes and lie face-down on the ground.
Then they pointed their guns at the Khmer riders. I was convinced they would shoot
us one-at-a-time. I was not particularly reassured when the village women approached
the platoon leader, begging him to spare us."
It became even more tense, he said, after they had been granted a stay of execution.
The bikers discovered that they had become hostages. Instead of having them shot
outright, the KR leader set a ransom of $1 million which would have to be paid by
10:00am the next day, Monday.
One of the Cambodian bikers, Long Somoth, was designated as the courier.
With a pistol pointed to his temple, he was ordered to relay the message to the "competent
authorities" in Phnom Penh, collect the cash, and bring it back in no less than
20 hours, Catry said.
To make sure that he understood, and that those so-called authorities would believe
Somoth's tale, Catry scribbled a note which the Cambodian was to take to his friend
and colleague, Emmanuel (Manu) Hart-mann, in Phnom Penh.
"Now I was even more worried because I was thinking to myself how could anyone
possibly find a million dollars so quick and bring it back before the deadline expired?
My mind kept wondering back to the Western hostage crisis of 1994."
Catry timed his note at 1:45pm. Somoth reached Manu Hartmann's office approximately
an hour later.
Then he and Manu immediately went to the French embassy on Monivong boulevard to
alert Ambassador Gildas Le Lidec. They were taken to the ambassadorial residence
where they met Le Lidec.
At 3:00pm, Hartmann and So-moth left Le Lidec, and were summoned back one hour later.
In the meantime, the ambassador, got onto the hotline to the Elysées Palace
"Le Lidec alerted the President of the French Republic, Monsieur Jacques Chirac,
that French nationals had been taken hostage in Cambodia," Hartmann said.
At 4:00pm, Hartmann and So-moth returned and were taken to a situations room inside
the chancellory. In it, ten men were assembled around a large table, Hartmann said:
Ambassador Le Lidec, consul Jean-Jacques Lejeune, first secretary Franck Gellet,
defence attache Colonel Le Pelletier, three officers from the Mission d'Assistance
Militaire (MAM) and three French secret service men.
During the next three hours, Somoth debriefed them about the day's events, while
the abduction was carefully reconstructed. A detailed map of the area where Catry
and the remaining six were taken hostage was studied.
"Later that evening, the MAM sent a team out to reconnoiter the area,"
Hartmann said. "They were able to come within a few kilometers of the village."
During the crisis - and even after it was over - although word of the abduction quickly
spread throughout Phnom Penh's franco-phone community, French diplomats refused to
give any information to the press.
"At present, we know nothing of certitude," Gellet told the Post on Oct
21. "We are trying to verify these reports that Frenchmen have been taken hostage."
Meanwhile, in Kompong Chhnang, the hostages had been brought back to Phum Tang Kruos,
after trekking through the surrounding hills in the afternoon.
Soon after Somoth was dispatched to the capital, the others were made to strip to
their underpants, had their hands tied behind their backs and were forced to march
into the forest, while the platoon leader stayed behind. Approximately 30 minutes
later they arrived at a resting spot in the jungle.
There, the cadres established radio contact with the nearest KR sanctuary which the
ex-hostages were told was at least 15km away, a day's journey by foot.
The radio-man, who used a hand-held device connected to a long antenna, climbed to
the top of a tree to clearly tune his signal. He was overheard distinctly calling
out the unit's division numbers in Khmer - prambuon, muoy, prambuon - 919.
Regiment 919 is aligned to Pailin breakaway leader Ee Chhean. A foreign military
analyst confirmed that elements of 919 are present in Kompong Chhnang and in some
parts of Kompong Speu province.
One of the hostages, Chea Vay, was then ordered to scale the tree to talk with the
local KR commander.
"When I was put through to their commander, he asked me what we had been doing
there," Vay said. "I explained that we were only driving through the countryside
"When I got down from the treetop, his subordinates later told us we would be
released within one hour. They asked us to accept their sincere apologies if there
had been any misunderstanding."
However, in the wake of the crisis, the question about who ultimately clinched the
release of the hostages had yet to be clarified.
According to Om Yen Tieng, aide to second prime minister Hun Sen, the co-premier
was only able to order the release of the prisoners via Pailin channels, only after
Cambodian intelligence had interrogated the runner, Somoth, on Sunday evening.
Tieng said he had had difficulty pinpointing Somoth's whereabouts and had wasted
precious time. As he explained it, the French Embassy had given him the wrong name
and no address for Somoth. Tieng claimed he had finally contacted the runner at around
Tieng said it had been critical to find Somoth in order to determine whether the
KR abductors were drawn from the ranks loyal to Chhean, or hardliners loyal to Anlong
"After Mr Hun Sen was able to get the number of the KR unit from Somoth, he
was able to contact the powers of Pailin," Tieng said.
"We asked them if they had sent orders to capture any foreigners. If this was
the case, we told them, they and any other hostages should be liberated at once.
Hun Sen's order was conveyed down the chain-of-command to the KR unit in Kompong
"Pailin is now under the command of the Ministry of Defence," he added.
"To me, it is clear that since Ee Chhean's forces are now integrated in our
command structure, he must now obey the orders of his military superiors in Phnom
Nevertheless, when the hostages returned to the village in the late hours of the
afternoon, the platoon leader was reluctant to release them before nightfall.
"Perhaps the platoon leader did not want to lose face," Catry speculated.
"Maybe he wanted to show that he wielded power, or he could have kept us there
overnight to heighten the drama and show that the KR had released us out of good
At around 10:00am Monday, having been taken in overnight by a local family, the hostages
were paraded in front of a throng of villagers. The platoon leader then asked Catry
- who, earlier this year, finished third at the first international motocross rally
staged in Indochina - to demonstrate his biking skills.
For the next half-hour, much to the delight of the KR and the 100 or so villagers,
Catry executed a series of jumps and popped a few wheelies.
"In the end, everyone was happy," Ken Merlet, the second Frenchman said
later. "From that point on, the atmosphere was much more relaxed."
For good measure, at noon, after an RCAF mediator had arrived to formally secure
their release, the KR platoon leader asked them to circle the village wat three times
as a show of thanks and good luck for the villagers.
After they drove home, the three French ex-hostages formally presented themselves
to their Ambassador on Monday afternoon.
At present, the future of the third Frenchman Thierry Liabastre- a junior officer
at the embassy - remains uncertain. Le Lidec had reserved some especially hot words
for him, French observers said.
Liabastre has reportedly been punished for breaching security protocol. He had failed
to consult his superiors at the embassy, observers said, before undertaking his first
Sunday excursion into the Cambodian countryside, which could well be his last