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Shadowy Guerrilla Leader Still Plays Key Role in Cambodia

Pol Pot's alleged capture has exacerbated the ongoing rivalry between the nation's feuding co-premiers

So where is Pol Pot?

Nearly 20 years after the leader of the Khmer Rouge fled into the Cambodian jungle, his presence looms over this Southeast Asian nation of 10 million.

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Often known as the architect of the "killing fields," which led to the deaths of an estimated 1 million Cambodians during his 1975-79 rule, "Brother No. 1" is reported to have surrendered to a faction within his guerrilla movement more than a week ago.

But he has yet to be seen in public. And even as some observers predict the disintegration of the radical Maoist guerrilla movement, others say factions of the group will endure under long-time Pol Pot aides Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan, and may be key in resolving the nation's leadership battle.

The continuing presence of the Khmer Rouge aggravates an already tense political standoff between the country's two rival co-premiers - Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

Plans to fly journalists to a rebel stronghold on Saturday to confirm the seizure of Pol Pot, ousted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, were canceled on the request of Mr. Samphan - the nominal head of the guerrillas' provisional government who is said to be holding Pol Pot - a spokesman for Prince Ranariddh claimed.

Forced to join together to form a government in 1993 after United Nations-sponsored elections, Hun Sen and Ranariddh have since shared power. Ranariddh's royalist FUNCINPEC party won the most parliamentary seats but Hun Sen's formerly communist Cambodian People's Party refused to accept the results. With Hun Sen in control of the military, Ranariddh was forced to accept his rival as "second" prime minister in a coalition that has always seemed shaky.

"The two really hate each other," claims one foreign political observer. "Both feel they were cheated out of the election."

The tension erupted June 17 in a shootout between heavily armed bodyguards of Ranariddh and the CPP-allied national police chief. A planned weekend visit by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Phnom Penh was subsequently canceled because of security concerns.

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An agreement has now been reached to move up elections scheduled for November 1998 to May 1998 in order to settle the matter. Out-gunned and out-politicked by his more savvy partner, Ranariddh has already entered into what many see as a dangerous attempt to rid the Khmer Rouge of its most unsavory elements and integrate remaining guerrilla members into a FUNCINPEC-led alliance.

The prince has started amnesty talks with Samphan, generally regarded as the most palatable of the current guerrilla leadership. The reasons are twofold. First are the thousand or so Khmer Rouge troops still in the field and who could be used by FUNCINPEC to offset the CPP's military advantage.

In addition, the Khmer Rouge has deep pockets. Enriched by their illicit trade in gems and timber, the guerrillas could help finance FUNCINPEC's election campaign and safeguard their business interests while staying discreetly in the background.

"This upcoming election will be an Asian-type election," argues a Western diplomat here. "It will probably look a lot like those in Thailand and Indonesia where money plays a big role. "This country is so poor that people will jump at the opportunity to sell their votes," he adds.

FUNCINPEC's maneuvers have come under heavy fire from the CPP, which the Khmer Rouge frequently derides as Vietnamese puppets because it was installed by Vietnam in 1979 after it ousted Pol Pot. "It's very, very regrettable on the part of the first prime minister ... to try to welcome those guys," says Sieng Lapresse, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Information. His Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party is allied to the CPP. "I think they're forgetting things too soon."

Indeed, while securing the handover and trial of Pol Pot would win it a lot of political points, FUNCINPEC may be overestimating the Cambodian public's willingness to forgive and forget the rest of the Khmer Rouge crowd. When Samphan went to Phnom Penh in 1991 to take part in UN-sponsored talks, he was badly beaten by a mob and forced to flee.

The Khmer Rouge negotiations are adding fuel to an election campaign which already promises to be explosive.

"Sure we're scared," admits Pung Chhiv Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Protection and Defense of Human Rights, when asked about the potential for bloodshed. "If things continue the way they are, the passions will mount, and violence too."

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