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UN Begins Repatriating Refugees Despite Fresh Battle in Cambodia

Thai officials worry that renewed Cambodian fighting could send refugees fleeing back into Thailand

EXILED by war for more than a decade, Cambodian refugees begin an ominous homecoming today.

The first 630 of 370,000 displaced Cambodians will leave camps in Thailand for this dirt-road provincial town 30 miles from the border in the start of a massive repatriation organized by the United Nations.

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On their return, the refugees face continuing warfare among rival factions, lawlessness, a countryside full of land mines, and primitive living conditions after the relative comforts of camp life.

Even before its launching, the refugee repatriation program has been clouded by funding and land shortages. And it is in a race against time to repatriate as many refugees as possible before the onslaught of monsoon rains in June. UN and Thai refugee officials admit the effort will likely face major delays.

Today, officials from 40 countries meet in Japan to discuss the Cambodian reconstruction effort. In its most ambitious peace-brokering role ever, the UN will administer Cambodia for 18 months, oversee the demobilization of rival armies, and organize an election in mid-1993.

Last week, Phnom Penh Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Washington to persuade the balking United States Congress to meet its commitment to fund $600 million, or 30 percent, of the cost.

But Lt. Gen. Sanan Kachornklam, who heads the Thais' repatriation effort, says: "With the problems, our plan to have the whole program finished by the end of this year is nearly impossible."

Already there are fears that the returning refugees, who will be guarded by UN peacekeeping troops from Malaysia, will be at risk. UN officials say the Cambodians may have to stay a week or longer in the five reception centers in Sisophon and other towns until security stabilizes and more land is demined.

The peace process became more complex yesterday when the Phnom Penh government announced an offensive against Khmer Rouge forces in northern Cambodia.

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Each side accuses the other of trying to seize control of villages before the arrival of UN peacekeeping troops. Most battles have raged along Route 12, which provides access to Khmer Rouge strongholds in the north.

"Judging from what's been happening, it looks like we're back to the bad old days," a UN official says.

The still skeletal UN team, which is expected to total 22,000, has failed to negotiate a cease-fire or win the cooperation of the Khmer Rouge, who are blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million people during four brutal years in power in the 1970s. The radical Marxists were driven from power in 1978 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and occupied the country for a decade.

All factions except the Khmer Rouge are cooperating with the UN effort, says Thai Army Col. Sommart Prungsuwan, who is overseeing demining of roads around Sisophon.

"You have heard the reports that the Khmer Rouge don't want to stop fighting until the Vietnamese Army leaves Cambodia," he says, referring to guerrilla charges that Vietnam still keeps troops in the country to bolster the Phnom Penh government.

Indeed, UN officials and refugee workers worry that the Khmer Rouge will increasingly try to intimidate Cambodians into relocating in areas under their control and voting for the guerrillas' slate of candidates.

Since the peace accord was signed in October, at least 20,000 refugees have returned to Cambodia, mostly to Khmer Rouge-controlled areas, Thai officials say.

Recently, a bandit attack at the Khmer Rouge-controlled Site 8 camp raised fears that the guerrillas were again trying to threaten refugees, most of whom say they want to go home with the UN. At Site K, another Khmer Rouge camp, the radical Marxists reportedly detained two civilian leaders for assisting the UN effort.

Seng Dara, a hospital worker in Site 8, says he doesn't want to return to his home, now controlled by the Khmer Rouge, because of the mines.

"I also want to be closer to Thailand so I can do business," says the man who, like more than half of the refugees, has asked to be relocated in western Battambong Province, near the frontier.

A flood of returning Cambodians is the Thais' worst nightmare. UN officials say they have no answers yet, but acknowledge Thai concerns.

"They [the refugees] think that if something goes wrong, there's the Thai border, because the border means trade," says Robert Burrows of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thai officials criticize the UN, saying it is not doing enough to anchor the Cambodians who cannot or don't want to stay on the land after a decade in the camps. Upon return, the UN will allocate each family four acres of land and materials for building a house.

Thailand, where refugees lived in exile for 13 years, pledges to deport anyone who tries to return.

"Thailand would face serious difficulty as it would be unable to provide assistance for those who return after repatriation, due to limited funds contributed by the UN," says Charan Kullavanijaya, a Thai security official.

Continued fighting also threatens the refugees, although Thai officials, who for years backed the Khmer Rouge as a bulwark against Vietnam, refuse to lay blame on the Khmer Rouge.

"We don't have that much to tell the Khmer Rouge," says General Sanan. "It is an internal problem."

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