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Exodus swells as Cambodia is condemned

Hundreds of expatriates converged on Phnom Penh airport yesterday, as more nations decided to evacuate their citizens from Cambodia after last weekend's coup.

The airfield, scene of a dramatic airlift of foreign nationals fleeing the Khmer Rouge in 1975, was the focus of intense fighting just under a week ago between rival government factions, littering the runway tarmac with debris.

Asbestos shards and rubble crunched under the feet of a long line of British, Canadian and American evacuees as they dragged their suitcases, and what belongings they could salvage, past the gutted terminal buildings towards three Malaysian Air Force cargo aircraft.

Empty boxes and broken bottles from duty-free cognac and French perfume, looted by the forces of each side, clung to nearby bushes and added a pungent piquancy to the scene, their odours mingling with the fading smell of gunsmoke.

The exodus, which has gained momentum over the past few days, has been given further impetus by a hardening of international condemnation of the coup which ousted the country's First Prime Minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and which established his former coalition partner, Hun Sen, formerly Second Prime Minister, as the unchallenged power in Cambodia.

At an emergency meeting in Malaysia yesterday, member states of the region's economic bloc, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) postponed Cambodia's membership, scheduled for later this month. This is a serious diplomatic rebuke for Hun Sen, but he has remained defiant, warning the international community and Asean to keep out of Cambodia's internal affairs.

In Washington, the State Department has called on Hun Sen to reverse his bid for power and to acknowledge Prince Ranariddh, who is canvassing US support in New York, as the senior Cambodian leader. Hun Sen has rejected the call.

United States marines are expected to fly in later today to supervise a full-scale withdrawal of American nationals, although this also is more a diplomatic reprimand at this stage than an expression of true fears for the Americans' safety.

More than 450 Britons are being advised by the Foreign Office to take the first available flights out of the country. Most will fly from Phnom Penh, leaving behind them a city scarred by the fighting. On the outskirts of the city, factories which were last week producing rubber components for export now lie burnt out, or shattered by heavy mortars and shoulder- launched B-40 rockets.

Prince Ranariddh's family home, said to contain priceless antiquities from the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, has been all but destroyed. The city offices of his Funcinpec political group were torn apart by the troops of Hun Sen's former communist Cambodian Peoples' Party. The fragments lie strewn across bloodstained roads outside the building, a reminder of the more than 50 people killed in the coup.

Hun Sen's soldiers, who just four nights earlier were looting shops and offices across the city, now roar through the pot-holed streets on powerful motorcycles, toting heavy machine guns and rocket launchers. During the fighting, fridges, cookers and other electrical goods were carried out through smashed shop windows. Car showrooms were emptied: gleaming red Toyotas or Mitsubishis can be seen crawling, incongruously, through the cycle-rickshaws and decrepit scooters that make up most of Phnom Penh's traffic.

But fires are no longer burning on the streets of the capital and the thousands of residents who fled the violence last week have mostly returned.

The looted goods are appearing in markets at prices within the reach of many more than could previously have afforded luxury items such as televisions and toasters. One man said he could now buy a new motorbike for just $100.

"We cannot stop and think about our situation for too long," says Kim Sok, a grocery stall-holder, "we have to put down our heads and work on to live, no matter what is going on around us."

The feeling, shared by most people in this beleagured country, devastated by nearly 25 years of incessant war, is that events are beyond their control.

Cambodians could not prevent America from dropping its bombs in the early Seventies, leaving as many as 400,000 dead. Nor did they largely support the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, led by the dictator Pol Pot, during which an estimated 2 million of their countrymen were killed.

The elections of 1993, sponsored by the United Nations, gave Cambodians their first real say in the running of their own country. Now even that result - always resented by the loser, Hun Sen - has been overruled.