Khmer Rouge reportedly hiding troops and weapons

November 11, 1991|By Philip Shenon | Philip Shenon,New York Times News Service

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The Khmer Rouge, the communist guerrilla group that once brutally ruled Cambodia and has now joined the new coalition government under a peace accord, is hiding troops and a huge cache of weapons in preparation for the possible resumption of the Cambodian civil war, diplomats and relief workers say.

The move, they say, violates disarmament provisions of the United Nations peace treaty that the Khmer Rouge signed in Paris only last month along with Cambodia's Communist government and two non-Communist guerrilla groups. The treaty, which is seen as the best hope for ending the long civil war in this shattered nation, requires partial demobilization by all sides under the supervision of the United Nations.

Yesterday, the first U.N. peacekeeping contingent -- 37 Australian soldiers armed with pistols and knives -- arrived on two planes filled with communications equipment.

The Australians are to set up communications among the four factions and the United Nations. They are eventually to be joined by troops from 22 other countries.

Charles Twining arrive today as the charge d'affaires at a new U.S. Embassy, 16 years after Washington closed its embassy when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.

Diplomats said that in drafting the treaty, they took into account the possibility that the Khmer Rouge or other factions would try to hide troops and weapons. With the arrival of the first soldiers yesterday, the diplomats expressed hope that adequate safeguards would soon be in place to prevent any new use of force.

"As best anyone can tell, the Khmer Rouge are hiding equipment and people wherever they can," said a Western diplomat who helped draw up the peace agreement.

"There's no way to detect a lot of it," the diplomat added. "One hope is that the Khmer Rouge will feel sufficiently intimidated by the presence of United Nations peacekeeping troops in Cambodia that they will not fight again."

Still, diplomats called the move by the Khmer Rouge particularly troubling because as the most powerful of the three rebel factions, it was in a position to determine whether the civil war would resume and when.

According to intelligence reports and accounts from Cambodian refugees crossing into Thailand, the Khmer Rouge has put aside enough weapons and ammunition in the Cardamom mountains of western Cambodia and elsewhere to allow it to fight for years.

Khmer Rouge soldiers are also being told to hide in remote base camps to prevent their detection by U.N. inspectors, who will try to monitor disarmament by the Cambodian factions, the Western diplomat said.

The reports from diplomats and relief workers are evidence both of the frailty of the peace agreement and of the threat still posed by the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot.

During the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, more than 1 million Cambodians were executed or died from starvation and disease as the government sought to remake Cambodian society.

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1978, its leaders returned to the Cambodian jungle and to border outposts in Thailand to regroup.

With sanctuary and weapons from China and Thailand -- which viewed the Khmer Rouge as a counterforce to Vietnam, their traditional adversary -- the Khmer Rouge emerged as the largest and best-armed guerrilla force in the war against the Cambodian government installed by Vietnam.

The Khmer Rouge formed an uneasy coalition with the two non-Communist groups, one led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the other by former Prime Minister Son Sann.

Diplomats discount Khmer Rouge claims that the group has abandoned its quest for a Marxist agrarian evolution and has, in its place, embraced liberal democracy and capitalism.

"Listen, the Khmer Rouge is not made part of this peace agreement out of any belief that Pol Pot has reformed his ways," an Asia-based Western diplomat said. "We involved the Khmer Rouge because they were the most powerful rebel group out there, and they could not be ignored."

Prince Sihanouk, who is to arrive Thursday from Beijing, will be chairman of Cambodia's Supreme National Council, a reconciliation body made up of representatives from the four factions. It is to help run the nation in consultation with the United Nations.

Whatever its current ideology or leadership, diplomats say, the Khmer Rouge retains a fierce determination to take power again in Cambodia. Still, some of those most cynical about the motives of the Khmer Rouge say it appears that the organization will allow free elections.

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