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Army close in on Pol Pot in jungle fastness

Pol Pot, the reviled leader of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge movement, could be captured within days and presented before an international genocide tribunal, the country's veteran Co-Prime Minister said yesterday.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh was visibly excited by his speculation, which he said was based on reports he had received from the remote northern jungle stronghold where more than 1,000 renegade Khmer Rouge soldiers are said to have turned their guns on Pol Pot and his small band of loyal fighters.

"We are witnessing historic moments for the people of Cambodia," he said, addressing crowds at the inauguration of a Buddhist pagoda outside the capital, Phnom Penh. "This is the end of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, and the beginning of peace for this country."

Cambodian military officials are reported to be in radio contact with the breakaway Khmer Rouge, who are encircling Pol Pot's loyalists 25 km east of Anlong Veng. According to Prince Ranariddh: "They are ready to deliver Pol Pot to us, dead or alive."

On Sunday, Khmer Rouge defectors attacked Pol Pot's convoy as it picked its way through jungle roads towards Thailand's border. One lorry is reported to have been captured in the attack and six high-ranking Khmer Rouge commanders, reportedly held hostage by Pol Pot's men, were released.

But the group's nominal leader, Khieu Samphan, is still believed to be in the custody of Pol Pot. So is Christopher Howes, the British mine clearance expert abducted by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Siam Reap province in March 1996. "It appears that Mr Howes is being held by the Pol Pot faction. But that gentleman was not among those we succeeded in freeing," Prince Ranariddh said.

However, none of the reports have been independently confirmed. There have been many rumours of Mr Howes' survival in Khmer Rouge custody since his abduction during a project to clear heavily mined land around the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in the northern Siam Reap province. But there has been no firm evidence of his whereabouts.

There is even greater scepticism among Phnom Penh-watchers, that Pol Pot, 67, will ever again be seen alive in public. He was last photographed in 1980, but has remained hidden since then amid rumours of failing health.

"Let's wait and see what the government shows us over the next few days. We may be surprised," said one diplomat. "My guess is that if there is really something big under way between rival Khmer Rouge factions, Pol Pol will go out fighting. And he's likely to take as many people with him as he can."