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Cambodians prepare for worst as poll tension grows: Fears of violence lead to stockpiling of food and arms in run-up to Sunday's multi-party elections

PHNOM PENH - Fearing an explosion of violence, Cambodians are hoarding food, buying guns and shuttering businesses, with just days to go before the country's first multi-party elections in two decades.

The tension can be sensed at the usually bustling central market, where most of the gold, jewellery and watch stalls are closed. Only a sprinkling of shoppers can be seen, stocking up on rice and canned food. They fear the market will close if there are attacks on the capital during the six days of voting in the United Nations-supervised elections, starting on Sunday.

Nov Wan, 61, a mother of eight, has stocked up on rice and is prepared to board up her house and stay inside. 'I won't go anywhere except to vote,' she said. Her neighbour, Preap Rors, added: 'I am worried about the situation, but I must vote because I want a new government.'

Sa Vet, 40, who owns a tiny food stall at the market, said he sold more than 2,000 cans of sardines this week. He usually sells fewer than 100. The market's moneychangers are almost out of high-denomination banknotes. They say people have been frantically buying 500-riel (6.5p) notes, the largest available, because they will be easier to carry if they have to flee their homes.

All Cambodia's factions signed the UN-sponsored peace plan in 1991 but the Khmer Rouge is boycotting the poll and has been blamed for attacks that have killed and wounded dozens of UN personnel in the past two months. It is widely feared that the group will attack polling sites. The head of the UN peace- keeping force, Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, yesterday authorised other Cambodian factions to launch attacks to protect polling stations.

A number of university students and other people with families outside the capital have left for the provinces. Those with more money, mostly Cambodian-American entrepreneurs and political candidates, have sent their families abroad in the past few days. Flights out of the country are fully booked.

Many of those staying are buying guns and ammunition. Gun-sellers in Phnom Penh's covert arms bazaar say that in recent weeks a number of wealthy businessmen and factory owners have bought AK-47 automatic rifles, costing about pounds 45, to defend themselves. Bullets were selling fast at pounds 13 for a case of 700. One dealer said even UN officials had been buying weapons.

UN military personnel have been ordered off the streets by 10pm. Those in Phnom Penh, who have been unarmed throughout the 14-month operation, have been told to carry weapons on duty, and the families of UN staff were ordered last week to leave Cambodia until after the election.

Yesterday Prince Norodom Sihanouk, regarded by many as the sole hope for healing Cambodia's deep wounds, announced that he would return from Peking tomorrow. Earlier he had said he could not come back to Cambodia because of poor health. 'I had to retain distance from the entire electoral campaign to underscore clearly that I am not linked to any political party,' a statement from Prince Sihanouk said. He added that neither he, his wife nor his staff would cast their votes.

Fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh government forces was reported yesterday in the provinces of Kompong Thom, Kampot and Siem Reap. Several UN peace-keepers were evacuated from their post in Kompong Thom after suspected Khmer Rouge attackers began shelling a nearby government position.

(Photograph omitted)