SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- Cambodia's revered head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, returned yesterday to his violence-torn homeland as Cambodians prepared to vote today in United Nations-organized elections.
"Never would I abandon my people and my country, particularly in these difficult times," the 70-year-old prince said at Phnom Penh's airport after arriving from Beijing, where he had received medical treatment.
Many Cambodians revere him because of his role in leading Cambodia to independence from France after World War II and because of his three decades of peaceful rule.
All four major factions in Cambodia -- even the Khmer Rouge -- say they want him as future president, and his return could moderate the violence surrounding the voting.
In New York yesterday, the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned a shelling of U.N. peacekeepers in Cambodia late Friday in which two members of a Chinese engineering detachment were killed and seven wounded.
A statement read at a brief public meeting also warned that the council would not countenance the use of violence to interfere with the polling.
In the five-day election that starts today despite widespread fighting and intimidation, Cambodians are to select a new government. Voters will elect a 120-seat General Assembly, which will write a national constitution.
The violence, both by Khmer Rouge rebels and by government agents, has shaped the attitudes and choices of the voters.
At the historic temple Angkor Wat, for example, where some 1,500 villagers have taken refuge from pre-dawn attacks by the Khmer Rouge, many villagers said they preferred the government's newly formed political party, State of Cambodia (SOC).
The SOC party leaders have made protection from the Khmer Rouge a prime platform in their campaign.
At SOC headquarters here, provincial director Ung Hoeun, 43,
spoke repeatedly of the government's fight against the guerrillas. "People are safe because of the government," he said. "We are expecting more Khmer Rouge attacks, but government troops will repel them."
The Khmer Rouge have boycotted the elections and attacked both U.N. peacekeepers and villagers in an effort to disrupt the election.
However, residents of a nearby village where a prominent opposition party official was slain May 14 say they will vote against the government.
The villagers believe government troops assassinated the official, Vann Syphon -- a belief shared by United Nations investigators.
Mr. Vann, a poor farmer, had a talent for addressing rallies. Every week, through a loudspeaker, he railed against Cambodia's Vietnamese-installed government, citing official corruption, the government's failure to pay its soldiers and other workers, and its indifference to the plight of the rural poor.
He was shot to death eight days ago as he sat on the porch of his thatched-roof village home. The director of the U.N. peacekeeping force, Yasushi Akashi of Japan, decried Mr. Vann's assassination in a letter of complaint to Cambodia's political parties.
Mr. Vann was one of four officials from two opposition parties assassinated during the last 10 days, according to U.N. reports.
Government officials denied involvement in the slaying, and in the slaying of other members of Mr. Vann's party, the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia, known by the French acronym FUNCINPEC.
The party was founded by Prince Sihanouk, the former monarch, and is led by a son of Prince Sihanouk, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The election will continue through Thursday.
The United Nations, with its 22,000-person peacekeeping force, has been entrusted with ensuring that the election is "free and fair."
Yesterday Mr. Akashi said he was confident that Cambodia had "the minimal acceptable conditions for free and fair elections."