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Khmer Rouge chief: babies were 'smashed to death'

The former head of a prison run by the Khmer Rouge has confessed to one of the darkest crimes committed during the regime's brutal rule – smashing the skulls of babies and children against the trunks of trees.

In testimony before a genocide tribunal in Cambodia, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, said that the children were executed to prevent them seeking revenge. Always watchful to save bullets, executioners would hold the youngsters by their legs or feet and smash their heads against tree trunks located in now notorious "killing fields" on the edge of Phnom Penh.

"I am criminally responsible for killing babies, young children and teenagers," said Duch, referring to photographs he was shown of how the children were killed. "The horrendous images of the babies being smashed against the trees ... I didn't recognise it at first. But after seeing the photographs I recalled that it had happened. It was done by my subordinates. I do not blame them because this was under my responsibility."

Duch, 66, was the head of Tuol Sleng jail, also known as S21, to which anywhere up to 14,000 or more prisoners, most of them Khmer Rouge members accused of disloyalty or sedition, were sent for interrogation and torture before being dispatched for execution. Thousands were taken by truck to an orchard near the village of Choeung Ek on the southern fringe of Phnom Penh. There they were made to kneel in front of pre-dug graves and were then struck on the back of the head with a steel axle shaft. However, a sign at Choeung Ek marks where young children were dispatched by using the tree trunk.

Last year, on a court-ordered visit to the killing fields, Duch fell to his knees and wept, first as he passed the tree where the children were killed and again when he stopped at a stupa in which are held the remains of around 80,000 skulls, all of them victims of the regime. In all, the Maoist-inspired regime was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through execution, disease or starvation between 1975 and 1979.

Duch has previously admitted his role as head of the prison and in overseeing the killing of prisoners delivered there. In interviews with journalists he has also previously admitted personally killing people, but during the trial he has confessed only to torture and has denied killing anyone.

The former maths teacher, who later converted to Christianity and worked for an international charity in the jungle under a false identity, said the regime's policy had been to avoid keeping children as prisoners. He said that he was told by the regime's former defence minister, the late Son Sen, that there was "no gain to keep them, and they might take revenge on you".

The joint UN-Cambodian tribunal is due to try five former senior regime figures, of whom Duch is the first.