BEIJING -- Three of four Cambodian factions pledged yesterday to press ahead with plans for their nation's first free elections in decades -- despite an ominous boycott of the meeting by the fourth group, the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge, radical Communists accused of killing 2 million of their countrymen in the 1970s, have recently launched a new round of attacks threatening to plunge Cambodia back into civil war.
They are refusing to participate in the Cambodian vote May 23-28, claiming that it will be rigged in favor of the nation's current, Vietnamese-installed government.
Yasuhi Akashi, head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Cambodia, acknowledged after yesterday's emergency meeting in Beijing that the Khmer Rouge's absence was "not a very happy omen."
He said it was unlikely the Khmer Rouge would attend another meeting next week. "It is the Khmer Rouge that has refused to cooperate with the other parties, and they have in effect placed themselves outside the peace process," Mr. Akashi said.
But he cautioned against "apocalyptic" predictions about Cambodia's future and predicted that 70 percent to 80 percent of the country's electorate would vote in "a free and fair atmosphere" -- under the watch of almost 20,000 U.N. troops and police.
"We're not waiting for perfect conditions to hold elections," he said.
The meeting of the three factions resulted in a communique affirming their commitment to the peace accord signed by all Cambodian parties in 1991, including the Khmer Rouge.
The new communique promises freedom of movement, of expression and of access to media within Cambodia -- promises intended to aid fair and open elections.
Apparently rejected was a proposal by Son Sann, leader of one faction, to postpone the vote and give Prince Norodom Sihanouk emergency powers as head of state. The prince is not aligned with any of the factions while he heads Cambodia's national reconciliation body, the Supreme National Council. He called yesterday's meeting because of the new round of Khmer Rouge attacks.
The Khmer Rouge, ousted from power by a 1978 Vietnamese invasion, waged guerrilla war until the 1991 peace accord that was supposed to have resulted in the disarmament of all parties.
Though the Khmer Rouge has lost the support of China, its main weapons supplier, the group has not given up its arms -- the attacks this week are believed to have taken at least 30 lives.
On Monday, Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked Siem Reap, a strategic provincial capital in northwestern Cambodia, and seized control of its airport in the most serious violence since the peacekeeping force arrived about a year ago. On Tuesday, the group hit U.N. posts with artillery and mortar fire and ambushed a convoy of election workers. One of the posts was manned by Chinese engineers, prompting a condemnation from China yesterday.