Mystery clouds the many deaths of Brother No1

First he died from bullet wounds. Then he was dying of cancer. Now it's malaria which is said to have finished him off.

Pol Pot, Asia's most infamous mass murderer, dies on a regular basis - in the world media, at least. The latest dramas in international newsrooms were triggered by a report from the French news agency, Agence France Presse. Nobody else could confirm the story, but it was too good to miss, so other world news agencies followed up with reports of their own, about the (possible) death of the Khmer Rouge leader who is held responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people.

Yesterday, a Khmer Rouge spokesman denied the reports of Pol Pot's death. Which neither proves nor disproves the veracity of the original reports.

Pol Pot, now 68 if he is still alive, has not appeared in public for more than a decade and a half. He has been surrounded by guerrillas who specialise in the art of concealment. It is almost impossible to know what goes on inside the Khmer Rouge leader's various hiding places near the Thai border.

The government in the capital, Phnom Penh has every reason to wish for Pol Pot's death, but is being careful about confirming his demise.

Nevertheless, King Sihanouk, who has his own health problems and twice formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, could hardly contain his glee. "If Pol Pot is really dead," he said, "Cambodia and its people will be rid of their worst criminal."

Thai intelligence sources were dismissive about the reports of Pol Pot's death. They are alleged to be closer to the Khmer Rouge than the Bangkok's official position of support for the Cambodian government would suggest.

Confusion over the life and possible death of the man who organised the murder of a quarter of Cambodia's population, is typical of Pol Pot's history.

Even his age is a matter of dispute, as is his family background. The Khmer Rouge insisted his circumstances were humble but most sources say he came from a family of prosperous farmers.

Such was the secrecy that surrounded Pol Pot's life that his brother, Saloth Nheap, did not even know that he had become the Khmer Rouge "Brother Number One" until he saw a poster of him in 1977 - two years after Pol Pot had gained power.

The official word from Phnom Penh is that the Khmer Rouge will wither without Pol Pot at the helm. But like its leader, the guerrilla organisation has been written off as dead a number of times before, only to spring back to life.

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