At 3.30pm on 11 April, two young Britons and an Australian hired a taxi in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, for the dangerous 135-mile trip south to Sihanoukville. Dominic Chappell and his Australian girlfriend, Kellie Wilkinson, were running a restaurant there. With them was Tina Dominy, a friend on her first visit to Cambodia.

About 75 miles out of Phnom Penh the road passes through the Elephant Mountains. Their tree-covered slopes conceal a large number of Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who prey on vehicles travelling between the port and Phnom Penh, stealing money and food.

Drivers at this point travel at breakneck speed, and avoid it in the late afternoon when it is empty and unprotected. But Dominic and Kellie had bought supplies in Phnom Penh's markets, and wanted to be back for the Cambodian New Year celebration due to start the next day.

It was 5.30pm when they approached the village of Ta Ney, a notorious blackspot. The mountains are only a few miles miles away and tall grass and bushes at the roadside give good cover for ambushers. Their driver stopped his red Toyota behind several other cars that were pulled up on the roadside.

Ahead, a group of armed men in bottle-green uniforms had forced a truck to halt - the trailer had jackknifed, blocking both sides of the road. It was the Khmer Rouge, looking for loot.

Some of the guerrillas left the truck and walked back to the line of waiting cars; when they saw the foreigners in the fourth car along, they ordered them out. But they took none of their belongings, nor the food in the back of the car, and they let the driver go. Dominic, Kellie and Tina, however, they marched into the bush.

It seems that they spent the first night in a sawmill not far from the road. The next day the hostages were led further up into the mountains to a fortified camp, surrounded by minefields. And there Dominic, Kellie and Tina have remained for the past two months, according to woodcutters who have been ferrying messages between the captors and the authorities. From the road, the steep escarpment where they are thought to be held is clearly visible.

Dominic and Kellie, both 24, met in Hong Kong, where they were photographers' models. They were in the young, glamorous set that frequents the bars and discos of Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district. They spent what they earned, stayed out late, and lived for the moment.

Dominic had been in Hong Kong for five years when, in April 1993, he and Kellie left for Cambodia. The United Nations had restored - temporarily, as it turned out - a semblance of peace and order to the country after 20 years of war. Young, moneyed expatriates in Hong Kong had been moving down to Phnom Penh, and smart restaurants and bars were being set up in renovated French colonial buildings. The party continued.

With its Buddhist temples, palm-lined streets and old architecture, Phnom Penh is a relaxed, cheap and captivating city. Marijuana is sold legally - Cambodians put it in stews. And three hours away by car are the white beaches of Sihanoukville.

The couple spent some time in the capital, where Kellie used to amuse people with her party trick - spitting fire from lighted petrol in her mouth. Then they decided to move down to Sihanoukville and manage a restaurant set up by some friends.

The Rendezvous is at a main crossroads in the middle of town. A red-and-white striped awning covers a large terrace. It became the main haunt of foreigners working or holidaying in the town. Business declined sharply as the last of the 20,000 UN personnel left Cambodia in November last year, but enough aid workers, foreign advisers to the government, diplomats and tourists remained to keep the Rendevous open.

Just before they were kidnapped, Dominic and Kellie had renewed their lease for another two years, according to Dominic's father, David Chappell. 'They were popular with the locals, liked the place, and wanted to stay,' he said last weekend in Sihanoukville, where he has been staying during negotiations for the captives' release. Mr Chappell, 54, is a former RAF pilot who now works as a photojournalist in Hong Kong. Tina, aged 23, had met Dominic and Kellie in Hong Kong, and had only been in Cambodia for three days when she was kidnapped.

Today the Rendezvous restaurant is locked up. Two families, the former cleaners, are squatting on the terrace. With no salary and nowhere to go, they lie in hammocks under the eaves, play cards and wait.

Dominic and Kellie 'were very kind, they paid well and gave us as much food as we wanted,' said Kon Nee, suckling a baby. She found out about the kidnapping when the taxi with the hostages' belongings turned up at the restaurant in the evening. 'Maybe some day they will be released, because they were very good to Cambodian people,' she said. Mr Chappell has been bringing food to the cleaners to help them to make ends meet.

Local residents, shocked by the kidnapping, remember Dominic fondly for one particular incident. One month before the kidnapping, an aggrieved husband threw a grenade at his wife, who ran a stall across the road from the Rendezvous. The woman was killed, but a young boy was lying injured on the pavement.

'Dom rushed out and picked up the boy and took him to the local hospital,' said Mr Chappell. 'Then he organised for him to be helicoptered to Phnom Penh for the surgery and blood transfusion he needed to save his life.' The boy is now recovering.

The Foreign Office, which was slow to respond to the kidnappings, does not seem to share the locals' feelings. Unlike the hostages in Kashmir, David Mackie and Kim Housego, Dominic, Kellie and Tina have attracted little media attention, and journalists have been refused briefings by the British embassy in Phnom Penh.

'The Foreign Office policy of saying nothing, I think that's wrong, because there is a story,' said Mr Chappell. 'These guys (Khmer Rouge) need to realise if you mess around with foreigners, their governments are going to react strongly.'

The Australian government sent two policemen, one with experience of Cambodia from the UN days, to Sihanoukville in the week of the kidnapping. Scotland Yard waited a full month to send someone from London. A grumpy man who refuses even to give his name to journalists, he has already alienated his two Australian colleagues, and the negotiations through intermediaries with the Khmer Rouge have been proceeding very slowly.

The kidnappers, who Mr Chappell thinks may be a renegade unit that has turned to banditry, are looking for 100,000 for the three hostages. Both governments have refused to pay the ransom - a policy Mr Chappell agrees with. Instead, the negotiators are trying to find some compromise involving donations of medical supplies, food and even a possible commitment to build a road into the mountain.

The negotiators do not think Dominic, Kellie and Tina will be shot, as this would bring retribution from the Cambodian army and disrupt the guerrillas' looting of the port road. But the Elephant Mountains are notorious for their malarial mosquitoes; Mr Chappell thinks the captives are likely to have contracted malaria already.

Hopes were raised last week when it was thought that one of the hostages was going to be released as a token of goodwill. But the appointed day passed, nothing happened.

In south London, Dominic's mother, Phyllida, had her bag packed to go to Cambodia last week. Now she is again waiting for the phone to ring. She speaks to the Foreign Office daily and keeps in touch with Tina's mother, Yvonne, who lives in north Kent. Mrs Chappell, an occupational nurse, and her daughter Gabrielle, who works in an off-licence, carry mobile phones and try to carry on with their lives.

Mrs Chappell does not think it would do any good for her to go to Cambodia now. 'I don't want Sihanoukville to be littered with Chappells. They have already got one and we don't need them to have any more.

'The Foreign Office have been incredibly kind, although it's all very diplomatic and very slow. I don't expect them go in with a gunboat because it wouldn't help,' she said.

Dominic, Kellie and Tina can probably see the main road from their mountainside jail. But the chasm they will eventually have to cross to get to freedom is a deep one, gouged by decades of internal conflict, violence and mistrust among the Cambodian people. Meanwhile, the number of tourists to Cambodia has plummeted and Westerners have been told to avoid the road if possible. In short, all the old problems that the UN was supposed to fix in Cambodia have resurfaced. In a way, the entire country of Cambodia is held hostage - by itself.