Pol Pot Is Dead, One Official Says Only Hours After Ailing Guerrilla Leader Was Reported Captured, Confusion Reigns

After Cambodia’s rival co-premiers finally agreed that Pol Pot had been captured, the status of the Khmer Rouge leader became confused again today over reports of his death.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen said today that he had been informed that Pol Pot was dead, but could offer no proof of his claim. Earlier today, First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh had said Pol Pot was alive and in custody.

“I received a phone call from Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng saying that Pol Pot had died already,” Hun Sen said, “but an hour and a half before this (Ranariddh) told me that Pol Pot was on top of the mountain and is being brought down.”

Hun Sen said that Sar Kheng had received his information from a Khmer Rouge radio broadcast, but no such information was heard by reporters on Khmer Rouge radio within the last 24 hours.

Hun Sen noted that Pol Pot has been reported as having disappeared, stepped down from power or died several times in the past and none of those reports were accurate.

There have been no independent sightings of the Khmer Rouge chief, whose brutal rule turned Cambodia into a vast and bloody agrarian experiment, since 1979.

The co-premiers, who rarely take a common stance on any issue, had stood side by side on Saturday to announce that Pol Pot was in the custody of Khmer Rouge guerrillas near the northern city of Anlong Veng, 190 miles north of Phnom Penh.

The co-premiers offered no evidence of Pol Pot’s capture.

Hun Sen and Ranariddh have been feuding for months with their disagreements resulting in violence between their troops as recently as last week.

Ranariddh’s military men have been negotiating with the guerrillas chasing Pol Pot, who Hun Sen said was holed up on Phnom Svay mountain about 10 miles east of Anlong Veng.

Earlier reports said the 69-year-old Pol Pot was so ill that he was being carried in a hammock by his men as he fled.

Speaking to reporters today, Ranariddh said Pol Pot was receiving medical treatment in Anlong Veng.

“Pol Pot has been arrested. … He is receiving oxygen that is attached to him to help him breathe. They should move him to town in Phnom Penh as soon as possible or move him somewhere else because this is very important for political reasons,” the prince said.

Ranariddh said that both prime ministers have signed a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan seeking assistance to try Pol Pot before an international tribunal.

“Pol Pot is a criminal against humanity,” Ranariddh said. “But I have to say we have to provide a fair trial.”

But to many Cambodians who suffered through the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, a trial would not be enough.

“For me, he must be executed,” said motorcycle taxi driver Lo Lan, 48, whose father and grandparents died under the Khmer Rouge. “They would have to slice up his flesh so that he suffers the way he made others suffer.”

Neither Cambodia’s constitution nor previous U.N. tribunals established to judge crimes against humanity in Bosnia or Rwanda allow the death penalty.

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians through starvation, overwork and systematic torture and execution in a frenzied bid to turn the country into an immense agrarian communist labor camp.

Pol Pot has been reported on the run near the Thai border since last week, when hard-liners within the disintegrating Khmer Rouge split into pro-and anti-Pol Pot factions, reportedly after he executed his onetime defense minister, Son Sen, and his family.

But some Cambodians were suspicious of the news, saying it was highly unlikely Pol Pot would give himself up.

“I don’t know what to make of this,” said Nguon Bunhoen, 40, who lost eight family members during the reign of terror. “But it could be one of the Khmer Rouge’s tricks.”

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