Cambodia's king warns of threat to poll

Siem Reap, Cambodia (AP) - King Norodom Sihanouk, calling his country "an island of war", predicted yesterday that free elections could not be held without peace between his son and the coalition partner who deposed the Prince in a coup.

The frail monarch returned to Cambodia on Friday after six months of medical treatment in China, and offered to mediate a peace deal to end two months of factional warfare. "If they allow me to do something, I would also like to participate in the informal talks," the King said, referring to possible negotiations between the Second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and royalists led by the King's son, the former First Prime Minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Hun Sen has promised elections for next May, the fifth anniversary of a United Nations organised vote that brought him to power in a tense coalition with Prince Ranariddh which was shattered by the coup in early July.

King Sihanouk, 74, told reporters in Siem Reap that he was willing to take up Hun Sen's offer to be a supreme adviser during the elections, but expressed doubts that the polls would be free and fair.

"If we continue like we have been doing in the last two months, we cannot have a democratic, free and fair election," he said. "We will have a guided, arranged election."

Prince Ranariddh won the election in 1993, but Hun Sen forced his way into a coalition by threatening renewed civil war. Few expect Hun Sen to lose next time or to surrender power if he does.

Prince Ranariddh's military supporters were still fighting yesterday along the northern border with Thailand, where they have held out against Hun Sen's larger forces for more than two weeks at the village of O'Smach.

The King predicted that the village will soon fall and that subsequent resistance will come primarily from the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

A Khmer Rouge faction is fighting alongside Prince Ranariddh's men.