Khmer Rouge deny veteran leader detained by Pol Pot

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 1996, 12:00am

Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan is reportedly languishing in prison at Pol Pot's mountain headquarters of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia.

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh claimed that the 65-year-old Khmer Rouge veteran had been arrested to prevent him defecting to breakaway forces loyal to Ieng Sary.

The clandestine Khmer Rouge radio said that Khieu Samphan had denied the reports, and sources in Phnom Penh could not confirm the rumours.

If true, the news points to further divisions within the guerilla movement, already devastated by the decision of former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary to split away last month.

It also highlights Khieu Samphan's enduring image as the most acceptable of the group's leaders, a myth perpetuated by Cambodian and foreign governments.

A briefing paper prepared by one Western government in 1983 said there was always 'some doubt about the degree of influence exercised by Khieu Samphan' during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Phnom Penh has publicly appealed to him on several occasions to defect, after which most observers believe he would be assured of amnesty.

'If Khieu Samphan comes back to the government side we will have a lasting peace,' Prince Ranariddh said.

Khieu Samphan was Democratic Kampuchea's chief of state and foreign minister in the Khmer Rouge's government in exile after 1979.

He represented the shadowy guerilla organisation in the negotiations leading up to the Paris Peace Accord in 1991, and was one of the group's two members on the United Nations-sponsored Supreme National Council.

These activities have given Khieu Samphan the highest profile of the organisation's leaders, and led to his internationally sanctioned status as a 'moderate'.

Stylish and urbane, Khieu Samphan is seen as the most likely candidate after Ieng Sary to break with Pol Pot.

Like Ieng Sary, he studied in France, and as a government functionary was under suspicion for having 'liberal' tendencies.

Khieu Samphan is also said to maintain good contacts with King Norodom Sihanouk, dating back to his job as king's jailer during the Khmer Rouge regime.

During this time Khieu Samphan reportedly used to smuggle shipments of French pate to the king.

Most experts on the Khmer Rouge, however, believe the reality behind Khieu Samphan's image is not so benign.