One of the most reviled figures of the century, the fugitive Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, surrendered to his former comrades on Wednesday, a clandestine rebel broadcast said.
The broadcast was greeted with astonishment, joy and skepticism by Cambodian officials and by foreign analysts who have spent much of their lives trying to comprehend the brutal and often bizarre creator of this country’s killing fields.
The development suddenly opened the prospect that Pol Pot, 69, could be handed over to the government or the international community and put on trial for the killings of perhaps more than a million Cambodians during his reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
The unexpected announcement came at a moment when the capital was in a state of tension after a gunbattle Tuesday night between rival political factions that was the worst street fighting here since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion.
A trial of Pol Pot was one prospect that few people had believed could ever come to pass.
“If it happens, it will be the first time in a long time that we have had such a figure available for trial,” said Steven Heder, a lecturer at the University of London who is a leading expert on the Khmer Rouge. “It would be extraordinary if instead of being shot in the jungle or living out his days still fighting, he would be brought to justice.”
But the broadcast also suggested to experts on the Khmer Rouge that an elaborate scenario was being played out in which Pol Pot’s surrender - or the report of his surrender was intended to clear the way for an amnesty for other culpable officials.
Such a procedure would put the focus of retribution narrowly on Pol Pot, limiting possible political consequences for public figures who might be tainted by past Khmer Rouge associations.
One possibility would involve the creation of a future coalition of Cambodian factions that might include the Khmer Rouge but exclude one of the country’s two prime ministers, Hun Sen.
Among public figures who reacted to the broadcast on Wednesday, Hun Sen was the most skeptical.
“We should be extremely careful with these Khmer Rouge games,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is a game that has been organized by Pol Pot. No one in the organization is above him. He has organized this himself.”
David Chandler, the author of a biography of Pol Pot, also cautioned against trusting the Khmer Rouge. “They may not have somebody alive when they show up,” he said.
The broadcast came from a Khmer Rouge grouping that calls itself the Provisional Government of National Union and National Salvation and professes allegiance to Khieu Samphan, the nominal Khmer Rouge leader. Khieu Samphan has been engaged in discussions with Cambodia’s other prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
“The dark cloud of Pol Pot’s dictatorial regime that has covered our Cambodian history since 1975 has been dissipated and completely removed by the Cambodian people,” said the brief statement, which was read repeatedly by a male voice. “A new era is beginning.”
The broadcast also stated a new credo that amounted to a rejection of much of the primitivist and isolationist policy of the Khmer Rouge: peaceful coexistence, contacts with all other nations and adherence to international law and the U.N. Charter.
The statement gave no indication what had happened or might happen to Pol Pot after his surrender. But steps were already under way in Phnom Penh to prepare for possible trials of Khmer Rouge leaders.
On Tuesday, Thomas Hammarberg, the U.N. special representative for human rights in Cambodia, said both prime ministers had agreed to ask the United Nations to help prepare for an international tribunal.
The radio broadcast came after a tumultuous week that involved violent confrontations both within the Khmer Rouge in their jungle headquarters in northern Cambodia and within the national government in Phnom Penh.
The separate but intertwined crises were a reminder of the complexity of Cambodian politics, in which the enmities, allegiances and traumas of the past, often invisible on the surface, retain their power over current events.
On Friday, Prince Ranariddh announced that Pol Pot had turned on one of his oldest associates, the former Khmer Rouge defense minister Son Sen, killing him and 10 of his relatives. He said Pol Pot had then fled into the jungle, pursued by 1,000 guerrillas who had until then been under his command.
He said Pol Pot had taken as hostages a number of other leading Khmer Rouge figures, then announced that all but two of those had been released.
There was no independent confirmation of his account, and much of it was greeted with skepticism. Photographs of bloody corpses appeared to confirm the deaths of Son Sen and his relatives, though some analysts - accustomed to Khmer Rouge disinformation - were reluctant to believe that even these were authentic.
Whether true or not, elements of the account could support a theory that Ranariddh, seeking to increase his power through an alliance with some Khmer Rouge leaders, agreed to welcome them back into public life if they jettisoned Pol Pot.
That could explain Pol Pot’s extraordinary flight into the jungle.
“All of a sudden, Pol Pot woke up one morning and figured out that they were all looking at him like he was the meal,” a knowledgeable Western analyst said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s possible. But it’s also possible that it’s a deal that they cooked up among themselves within the Khmer Rouge. It’s hard to tell.”
Ranariddh’s reports came in the midst of a worsening feud between him and Hun Sen, which was aggravated by the prince’s negotiations with leading members of the Khmer Rouge at their jungle stronghold of Anlong Veng, 300 miles north of here.
The two prime ministers had been competing for the support of breakaway Khmer Rouge units since a debilitating series of defections began last August. The central command at Anlong Veng was the last holdout.
The rising tensions between the government factions erupted in violence on Tuesday night when feuding security units loyal to different parties opened fire at one another with small arms and B-40 rockets, killing two people and wounding a number of others.
Though the fighting lasted only two hours and did not worsen, it demonstrated the increasing instability here as the political parties led by Ranariddh and Hun Sen build up their private armies.