Appearing exhausted and ill, Khmer Rouge guerrilla leader Pol Pot was carried into a jungle base Sunday by rebel former followers who pledged to cut their ties with him and support the Cambodian constitution, a government negotiator said.
Meanwhile, the United States on Sunday reportedly asked Canada to play the lead role in bringing Pol Pot out of Cambodia to face an international court.
After returning here from talks with the rebels at their northern Cambodian stronghold of Anlong Veng, Gen. Nhek Bunchhay, the deputy army chief of staff, said he saw Pol Pot and his ailing number-two man, Nuon Chea. They had been carried in hammocks into the base by Khmer Rouge guerrillas who captured them on a hilltop about 10 miles away, he said.
If Bunchhay, who has been known to give incomplete or inaccurate information, can be believed, it was a rare glimpse of one of the world’s most reclusive leaders, who presided over a bloody reign of terror that killed as many as 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s and has not been seen in public in the last 17 years.
The general, who has been negotiating with the Khmer Rouge on behalf of the first prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, described the elusive former dictator as under house arrest in the custody of about 1,000 guerrillas who had turned against him after he ordered the killing of Khmer Rouge defense chief Son Sen and his family.
Bunchhay said the rebels agreed to stop supporting Pol Pot “politically and militarily,” dissolve the Khmer Rouge “provisional government” in the area and reconcile with King Norodom Sihanouk, who is undergoing medical treatment in China.
Bunchhay, an adviser to First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, has been the source of a series of reports by him over the last 10 days describing a violent split in the Khmer Rouge leadership in which Pol Pot reportedly fled into the jungle.
None of these reports have been confirmed, and although some experts on the Khmer Rouge are convinced that the accounts are essentially true, skepticism has grown.
But the general made no mention of any agreement by the rebels to turn Pol Pot over to government custody so that he can be tried for crimes against humanity before an international tribunal, as demanded by Ranariddh and his rival, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. It appeared that this may still be under negotiation.
There is no permanent court to try cases of genocide, but the U.N. Security Council could establish a special panel to try Khmer Rouge leaders, as it has done for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy for his country’s help in extraditing Pol Pot, during a private meeting at the Summit of Eight industrialized countries in Denver, the Canadian Press news agency reported.
Albright said she made the request because Canada may be able to apply its genocide law and obtain the guerrilla’s extradition.
“Apparently, our domestic legislation allows for non-Canadians and for crimes committed outside of Canada to be subject to prosecution,” said Catherine Lappe, spokeswoman for Axworthy.
“I did not talk to Pol Pot, but I saw him today sitting in a house,” Bunchhay told reporters upon his return to Phnom Penh, the capital. “His health is not very good. He is very old and tired and sick.”
The visit suggested that while Pol Pot’s days as the shadowy chief of the Khmer Rouge may be over, the remnants of the fractured organization are still seeking a political role in Cambodia and are trying to drive a wedge between the already badly split partners in the governing coalition, the parties of Ranariddh and Hun Sen.
The Khmer Rouge rebels want their political organization, the National Solidarity Party nominally headed by Khieu Samphan, to be admitted into Ranariddh’s National United Front, an umbrella group the prince formed to compete with Hun Sen’s powerful Cambodian People’s Party in local and national elections over the next year. Hun Sen has vowed to use force to prevent such an alliance and has demanded the arrest of Khieu Samphan along with Pol Pot.
Instead, the urbane Khieu Samphan, for years a political front man for Pol Pot as the figurehead leader of the Khmer Rouge apparatus, appears to be playing the same role now for the rebels in Anlong Veng.
Bunchhay said Khieu Samphan, whom he said he also saw at the base, will hold a news conference in the next couple of days at Preah Vihear, northeast of Anlong Veng, on the border with Thailand, and will formally announce an agreement to abandon Pol Pot and support the Cambodian constitution.
“The declaration will solve the problems of the country completely and achieve real peace,” Bunchhay said.
However, diplomatic sources said the Khmer Rouge show no intention of giving up effective control of their zone and appear to be following the model of breakaway Khmer Rouge units in the western gem-mining center of Pailin last year.
There, Ieng Sary, a high-ranking Khmer Rouge official who is Pol Pot’s brother-in-law and his former foreign minister, “defected” to the government. Defecting with him were several senior military commanders and thousands of fighters who were nominally integrated into the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Although the government has claimed the defections as a great victory, the breakaway faction continues to run the Pailin zone virtually as an independent fiefdom, with a Khmer Rouge general serving as “governor.”
Bunchhay provided few details of his encounter with Pol Pot, describing him only as looking old, thin and sickly.
The general said he also saw at the base the notorious one-legged Khmer Rouge commander, Ta Mok, who is known as one of the guerrilla organization’s most brutal hard-liners. Ta Mok’s position remains unclear, although it is his units that have pursued and captured Pol Pot. Analysts say he may be in control of the rebel forces and seeking the kind of amnesty that was granted Ieng Sary last year.