Pre-poll violence overwhelms UN in Cambodia: A wave of killings threatens the peace process, writes Terry McCarthy from Phnom Penh

YOU DO not stray off the road to Banteay Srei, one of Cambodia's most beautiful temples, 20 miles north of the main complex of ancient monuments at Angkor. If you must relieve yourself, you do it in the road. The signs are red with a white skull and crossbones: 'Beware Mines.'

Campaigning for the planned elections in May starts this week, and the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is coming to inspect the process. But the prospects for a peaceful election could not be more bleak: in the latest setback, suspected Khmer Rouge guerrillas last week killed three Bulgarian peace-keepers - the most serious attack yet against the UN presence in Cambodia.

The UN's message is secret ballots and a neutral political environment for the exercise of democracy. But outside the air-conditioned offices of UN bureacrats in Phnom Penh, 'democracy' has a different face. In Banteay Srei district the exercise of democracy includes laying mines, assassinating political rivals and widespread intimidation of the civilian population, as the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government fight it out for control of the people.

Last month, the United Nations logged 103 politically or ethnically motivated killings in Cambodia. Sixty-two came in the last week. 'There has been a spiralling of violence in recent weeks,' said Denis McNamara, head of the UN human rights team. 'It has overwhelmed us, and we cannot even investigate all the killings properly. '

Some of the dead are ethnic Vietnamese, killed by the Khmer Rouge. Others are members of the non- Communist Funcinpec party, led by Prince Sihanouk's son. The Phnom Penh government sees Funcinpec as its main rival in the elections (the Khmer Rouge is not taking part).

Even if the killings do not escalate, much of the damage has been done already. In Banteay Srei, as elsewhere, the Phnom Penh party has been ostentatiously taking down the numbers of people's voter registration cards. In theory this is pointless - the election ballot papers will not be identifiable. But for people who have lived most of the past 20 years under Communist rule, the effect is to make them think their vote is traceable. 'It is very difficult,' said Sok Sathay, a locally-hired UN employee, sitting in one of the small UN field offices in Banteay Srei. 'People are afraid of what will happen to them after the elections, when the UN is gone.'

Behind him is a UN promotional poster, in cartoon form, showing soldiers giving up their weapons, listening to human rights seminars, voting and starting a family in a smiling, peaceful society. Nothing could be further from reality. Sadly, the UN and the Cambodians are now working from two entirely different agendas. And the UN agenda runs out of money and people this summer, as the pounds 2bn, 20,000-people operation in Cambodia is due to be wound up.

The road to Banteay Srei passes the other great temples of the 1,000-year- old Khmer empire. The mysterious Bayon, the Ta Prohm, and Angkor Wat, the most majestic of all, with its five towers that have come to symbolise Cambodia itself.

This used to be the home of architects and sculptors of genius, products of one of Asia's great civilisations. Today Angkor's temples house plunderers and thieves, selling carvings and statues to dealers who come across the border from Thailand. The same armed men, from all the factions, who are wrecking the peace plan and the hopes for a political solution to 20 years of war are also despoiling the nation's cultural heritage.

As the statues disappear, the Khmer Rouge is drawing closer to Angkor, and some UN officials think it is planning a hit-and-run attack, possibly against the airport, to scare away tourists and deny the Phnom Penh government the money it earns from the tourist trade.

'We are not even facing a civil war,' said Janos Jelen, the deputy provincial director for the UN in Siem Reap. 'It will just be like people getting drunk, going outside for a fight, and as soon as someone gets a bloody nose they stop and go inside to drink some more. It is a slow wasting away of an entire country.'