Rival factions of the disintegrating Khmer Rouge squared off Saturday near the Thai border, where Pol Pot, the movement’s leader, was reported trapped, ill and unable to walk.
Cambodia has closed its border to prevent his escape and government leaders say the standoff may mean the end of the Khmer Rouge, which created one of the century’s most brutal regimes.
A Cambodian prime minister said the government army should sit back while the remnants of the group destroyed each other.
“We sit on the mountaintop and watch the tiger and lion fight each other,” Second Prime Minister Hun Sen said. “Let them be injured first so we can capture them. Then we can consider our options.”
Government military officials reported sporadic fighting between the two groups. Whatever the outcome, the Maoist-inspired movement, which caused the deaths of 2 million Cambodians during a reign of terror from 1975 to 1979, appeared to be finished.
Cambodia’s other premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said the infighting, sparked by Pol Pot’s execution Tuesday of his former defense chief for trying to negotiate a large-scale defection to the government, signaled “the veritable end of the Khmer Rouge.”
Ranariddh, leader of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, said Pol Pot, 69, was unable to walk and on an intravenous drip.
Gen. Nhek Bunchhay, deputy army chief of staff, told reporters that Pol Pot and some 200 troops were surrounded near the Thai border by about 1,000 former comrades.
Nhek Bunchhay, a member of Ranariddh’s party, said Saturday a tentative deal had been reached to allow Pol Pot, Son Sen and Ta Mok - the group’s most blood-stained leaders - to leave Cambodia for exile in an unnamed country.
On June 1, Nhek Bunchhay said he led a delegation to Anlong Veng and met Khieu Samphan, the group’s figurehead president. They were on the verge of an agreement but Pol Pot stood against it, accusing Khieu Samphan of betrayal.
Early last Tuesday, Pol Pot called a meeting of the top leadership, Nhek Bunchhay said. Son Sen did not wish to take part.
He was shot to death in his home shortly afterward - along with his wife and eight family members - on charges of treason.
Son Sen was responsible for internal security during the Khmer Rouge regime, running a secondary school-turned-prison where an estimated 20,000 “enemies of the state” were tortured before being killed in a nearby field.
Some Cambodians said Son Sen got what he deserved.
“Yes, it was cruel,” said Saing Vitou, 34, a teacher who lost six family members during Khmer Rouge rule.
“But if you talk about karma in Buddhism, he deserved it. It was no worse than what he himself did to the Cambodian people.”