Cambodian breakaway zone under threat: Violence erupts as election victors launch armed challenge against renegade forces to retake 'autonomous region'

PHNOM PENH - The leader of the Cambodian election's winning party said yesterday he had ordered his soldiers to prepare to retake an 'autonomous zone' established by the losers of last month's ballot. Violence was reported to have erupted in the zone, which includes seven eastern provinces across almost half of Cambodia.

The United Nations peace-keeping mission demanded that the government rein in the renegade forces, which have ordered all members of the winning Funcinpec Party and UN peace-keepers to withdraw from the zone. A government spokesman, however, insisted the administration had lost control over the secessionists.

'We are ready to set up our own forces to fight and liberate that part of Cambodia,' said Prince Norodom Ranariddh of Funcinpec. 'We are not going to accept any partition of Cambodia. Cambodia is small enough.' He said his party had the right of self- defence and had arms caches in the affected provinces.

The secessionists are led by Prince Ranariddh's half-brother, Prince Norodom Chakrapong, a senior official of the Vietnamese-installed government that narrowly lost the UN-organised election to Funcinpec.

Prince Chakrapong claimed the polling was fraught with irregularities, and refused to acknowledge the results, which have been recognised by the United Nations.

In a statement yesterday, the UN mission said it had withdrawn some non-essential staff from three of the seven provinces in the zone, citing 'specific threats' against a number of personnel. It said UN troops and police, however, would stay at their posts.

Funcinpec Party members said that renegade government soldiers have shot their colleagues, burned down their offices and forced more than 1,000 to flee to Phnom Penh from the seven provinces.

'Our Funcinpec workers and supporters had to run away for their lives or they would be shot,' said Ken Savut, who fled Prey Veng province. 'The shooting is real.'

He was among two dozen Funcin pec members who yesterday described in interviews in the capital how soldiers marched through the streets in several of the provinces, shooting several Funcinpec members and beating others.

The UN chief in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, said he would hold the government responsible for any attempts by its renegade forces to follow up threats against opposition parties, which he said violated international law.

'Any attempt to deprive the Cambodian people of their stated desire for national reconciliation and democracy . . . would be unacceptable to the international community,' Mr Akashi said. He said he had written a letter asking the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, to explain his plans for dealing with the threats of lawlessness. A government spokesman, Khieu Kanhar ith, said: 'We are trying to contact the mastermind of this uprising but they refuse to have contact with us.'

It is unclear how many soldiers Prince Chakrapong has taken with him in the so-called 'King Father Autonomous Zone' along the border with Vietnam and Laos. UN officials estimate Funcinpec's forces at 5,000.

(Photograph omitted)