PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
KHMER ROUGE guerrillas have released photographs and an audio tape recording of three Western tourists they are holding hostage in the southern province of Kampot.
The hostages - Australian David John Wilson, Briton Mark Davis Slater, and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, all in their late 20s -
have been held since July 26 when they were captured from a train hijacked about 80 miles south of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge has demanded $150,000 in gold for release of the three.
The backpackers were among 200 passengers on the train headed for Cambodia's coast. Nine passengers were killed in the attack. Most of the other survivors have been released.
The kidnappings are the latest in a series of operations by the Khmer Rouge, the group of guerrillas that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 that is blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. The current coalition government, which came to power last year in United Nations-brokered elections, outlawed the group last month after peace talks held at the behest of King Norodom Sihanouk failed.
The guerrillas are also suspected of kidnapping three other Westerners in April. Those captives, two young Britons and an Australian, have been feared dead since the discovery in mid-July of Caucasian human remains in an abandoned Khmer Rouge camp near where they were abducted.
The Khmer Rouge are now massing thousands of troops outside the northwestern city of Battambang, according to the governor of that province. It is uncertain whether last week's train attack and the troop buildup is politically motivated, but there is speculation that the Khmer Rouge may be stepping up its campaign to prove that the government in Phnom Penh has lost control in the wake of a July 3 coup attempt and in response to pleas from the government for foreign military aid.
Military aid for Cambodia was discussed at last month's meeting in Bangkok of the Association of South East Asian Nations and appears to have the support of both Australia and the United States.
In the tape recording released Wednesday, the hostages did not mention a possible motive for their abduction, giving only their names, ages, and brief accounts of their capture. On the tape, which was edited, the kidnapped men said they had been put to work building a dike in a rice field.
Diplomatic and government officials disagree over Khmer Rouge motives. ``The Khmer Rouge has been involved in at least some of the abductions in the past few months,'' said US Embassy spokesman David Miller. ``But it is not clear whether it is politically inspired rather than economically inspired banditry.''
Cambodian Minister for the Interior You Hockry, disagrees. ``This has no connection with politics,'' he says. ``They want to interrupt lines of communication and rob people. They need money.''
The government concedes that at least one-sixth of Cambodia is controlled by the Khmer Rouge, but independent observers estimate the guerrillas may control up to a third of the country.
Though loosely organized, the Khmer Rouge set up a provisional government near the northern border with Thailand on July 11 following the coup attempt. Both the royal government and the Khmer Rouge have predicted an escalation in fighting since the rebels were outlawed and the provisional government established.
The Cambodian government has said it will not pay ransom money to the Khmer Rouge and is working with the involved embassies to free the hostages.