Cambodia's evil despot stays just out of reach

"Now we can see the sky, but we cannot say how far it is from here to the sky," said Hun Sen, one of Cambodia's two Prime Ministers, using a characteristically cryptic metaphor. "Where is Pol Pot? Who is he with? We do not know," he said, as he pondered the deepening mystery over the reviled leader of the Khmer Rouge.

There was mounting speculation again in Cambodia yesterday that Pol Pot might finally have been detained by the force of renegade guerrillas who split from the ailing despot earlier this month. Reports on clandestine Khmer Rouge radio, now in the hands of the renegade faction, said last night that Pol Pot and others had surrendered and were now in custody in Anlong Veng, the group's remote jungle stronghold. There has been no independent confirmation of the report; just as there has been no confirmation of any of the other reports. But Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the country's "first" co-premier announced yesterday what he promised would be a final assault to capture Pol Pot.

Speaking at the colourful opening of a Buddhist pagoda, Prince Ranariddh confirmed earlier reports that Pol Pot had offered to surrender under certain, unspecified, conditions, and he added that this offer had been rejected by the renegades. They were proceeding towards Pol Pot's encampment slowly and with caution, he said.

"They are being careful because Pol Pot is surrounded by landmines and they don't want to force them into mass suicide," he told journalists. "We have been told clearly that Pol Pot and his remaining forces - about 15 men - have asked to surrender." But such categorical statements, have been made before by Prince Ranariddh, the veteran Royalist, only to be contradicted later.

Pol Pot, according to reports, has been on the run in the thick jungles of northern Cambodia after 95 per cent of his Anlong Veng forces turned against him. They were said to be embittered with his ordering of a brutal internal purge, in which Son Sen, a long-serving confidant, and the Khmer Rouge security chief, was put to death along with 11 of his family.

Escaping the angry dissenters, we were told, Pol Pot fled into the jungles with a band of 200 loyalists and a handful of hostages, including the nominal leader of the movement, Khieu Samphan, and, bizarrely, Christopher Howes, the British de-miner who was abducted by the Khmer Rouge in March 1996. However, these reports have not been independently confirmed.

Last Wednesday, Khmer Rouge radio again claimed Pol Pot had surrendered. That was proven untrue the next day. As the debate dissolved into farce, Prince Ranariddh revealed to the international media gathered expectantly in Phnom Penh, that he had been playing golf and had heard nothing to suggest Pol Pot was captured.

Amid the madness and speculation, Hun Sen has been relatively low key. He stands to lose more than most if the Khmer Rouge join, as planned, the Royal Cambodian Army.

Committed Hun Sen haters, the defecting Khmer Rouge - whilst renouncing Pol Pot - have continually reaffirmed their commitment to fighting the "Vietnamese Puppet". Hun Sen abandoned the movement to join the Vietnamese forces who finally ended in 1979 the bloody years of the post-1975 Khmer Rouge regime.

Furious with his bitter rival Prince Ranariddh for succesfully wooing the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has dismissed the latest developments as a "trick", with the cynical objective of rehabilitating the leaders of the movement he has spent nearly 20 years fighting. "I don't believe Pol Pot will ever emerge," he said. "It's a big political game orchestrated to bring the Khmer Rouge back into politics."

A conspiracy theory, perhaps. But as the days move on with no hard proof that Pol Pot has not been allowed to escape for a life in exile, or has died already, it is a theory which is finding an increasing number of advocates amongst foreign observers.