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Rebels say Cambodia risks war Khmer Rouge threaten elections


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The Khmer Rouge rebels warned yesterday that internationally supervised elections scheduled to begin tomorrow would "put fuel on the flames of war" in Cambodia and accused the United States of plotting to destroy the Maoist guerrilla group.

The rebels, who are threatening to sabotage the United Nations-sponsored elections with violence and who have already been blamed for the deaths of 10 U.N. peacekeepers, said the election results would serve only to give legitimacy to the current Vietnamese-installed government.

"We could not accept to be killed, swallowed and destroyed by the Vietnamese occupation," a Khmer Rouge spokesman said at a news conference in rebel-held territory in western Cambodia, a few miles from the border with Thailand. "Such an election does not bring peace to Cambodia. It is organized in order to put fuel on the flames of war."

The rebel threat to sabotage the elections has alarmed leaders of the 22,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force in Cambodia. They have warned that the six-day election, in which Cambodians are to select 120 members of a constitutional convention, will probably be marred by terrorism, including Khmer Rouge attacks on polling stations.

The fear of a Khmer Rouge attack is most palpable in the northwestern province of Siem Reap, half of which is already under the control of the rebels. U.N. officials believe that Siem Reap, home to the fabled ruins of the ancient Cambodian capital, Angkor, is the province most likely to be attacked by the Khmer Rouge this weekend.

"It's quiet, too quiet," said Maj. Patrick Delort, a French police officer who is the deputy provincial commander of the U.N. civilian police. "We're waiting for an attack."

He said that the Khmer Rouge forces in Siem Reap had ample ammunition and that there was almost nothing that the United Nations could do to forestall an attack. "Whenever and wherever they want to attack, they can," he said.

More than 100 Cambodians from the province have taken refuge around Angkor Wat, the 12th-century hand-carved mountain of stone that is Cambodia's national symbol. They fled to the ancient temple after their homes were attacked and burned by the Khmer Rouge.

For many, the Cambodian elections seemed a cruel abstraction. "I dream only about the shelling," said Sok Borann, one of the refugees living in palm-leaf huts in the shadow of Angkor Wat.

Under the leadership of the notorious Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of more than one million Cambodians when they controlled the central government in the 1970s. After the invading Vietnamese army toppled Pol Pot in 1979, the Khmer Rouge returned to the Cambodian jungle and took up arms as insurgents.

As recently as last year, the Khmer Rouge sought friendly relations with the United States, apparently believing that Washington shared their hatred of Vietnam. But yesterday, the Khmer Rouge dropped even the pretense of cordiality, accusing the United States of a scheme to arm Vietnam and the Cambodian government against the Cambodian rebels.

The Khmer Rouge spokesman, Mak Ben, said the "U.S. and its allies have had a policy to eliminate" the Khmer Rouge since the signing of the 1991 United Nations-brokered peace treaty that was supposed to end Cambodia's civil war. The Khmer Rouge joined in signing the treaty but later pulled out of the peace process, asserting that thousands of Vietnamese troops had remained in Cambodia in violation of the agreement.

"The Cambodian people have every right to defend themselves," Mak Ben said.

An American diplomat in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, described the Khmer Rouge assertions as "laughable."

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