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Report of Pol Pot death `a joke'

Is Pol Pot dead or alive? It seems too neat, perhaps, that the chief of the Khmer Rouge, guilty of killing 2 million Cambodians and now hunted in the jungle by his many enemies, should be spared justice only to die from a mosquito's bite.

Officially, the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet is closed. The Khmer Rouge guerrillas, at war with King Norodom Sihanouk's government in Phnom Penh, live in the marshy jungles beyond the last Thai rice paddies. Unofficially, some Khmer Rouge guerrillas are allowed across to buy fish sauce to make their meagre rice meals more palatable, and the small morsels of gossip they dispense in return are usually all that journalists and spies can glean about Pol Pot's activities.

It was one such soldier who last week told a Thai journalist that Pol Pot had died of malaria. News of his "death" was flashed "urgent" by a wire service, ringing bells in newsrooms around the globe. Obituaries were prepared which argued whether Pol Pot was a madman, or, as the radicals see him, a true revolutionary who carried revolution to a nihilistic extreme.

He emptied the cities, tore apart every Cambodian family, eradicated intellectuals, teachers and scientists as harmful "microbes" and tortured and murdered tens of thousands of his own Khmer cadres; all this to return society "to the simplicity of a single grain of rice".

But not everyone believed Pol Pot was dead. Thai intelligence officers failed to confirm it, as did authorities in Phnom Penh, who desperately wanted to believe it. Pol Pot's 10,000 Khmer soldiers still control nearly a quarter of Cambodia and are constantly harassing government troops.

It is not a simple matter of crossing over to find him. I tried approaching the Aranyaprathet border on motorcycle. Rounding a bend on the jungle road, I came to a Thai army checkpoint. An officer waved me back angrily. "It's dangerous," he said. "Don't you know the Khmer Rouge are kidnapping foreigners these days?"

It was true. So desperate are the guerrillas to reopen contacts with the West that they are grabbing foreigners as ransom. This conversation- opener has not worked: at least four Westerners have been killed by the Khmer Rouge.

One Thai journalist did make it into Khmer Rouge territory. Prasit Sangrungrueng said he contacted a nephew of Pol Pot's by radio. This nephew, an army commander named So Hong, was staying at the same rebel base in north-east Cambodia as the Khmer leader. He confirmed his uncle was still alive.

And the original report? "It was a joke," said Mr Sangrungrueng, "The Khmer commander was even teasing about how he was taking his entire unit to the funeral ceremony."

Some Thai intelligence officers believe Pol Pot may be spreading rumours of his death to confuse his foes. Perhaps. But some day the story of his death will come true. It might indeed come from a mosquito's sting, but many Cambodians would prefer he be brought to trial and made to pay for the genocide he inflicted so meticulously.