Sihanouk takes over and aims for a coalition: With royalist party ahead in Cambodia Prince moves to avert return to war

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PRINCE Norodom Sihanouk yesterday declared he was assuming the posts of President, Prime Minister and supreme commander of the armed forces and the police of Cambodia in a flamboyant attempt to forge a political compromise as last week's UN-backed elections appeared in danger of repudiation.

With 90 per cent of the votes counted, the royalist Funcinpec party was ahead in the polls, but its main rival, the Vietnamese- installed Cambodian People's Party (CPP), had threatened to ignore the election results, claiming irregularities in the voting in four provinces.

The 70 year-old former king, who lost power in a coup in 1970, said he would head an interim government while his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, the prime minister of the old Phnom Penh government, would serve as deputy prime ministers.

He said he would continue to recognise the Khmer Rouge as a party in the political process, depite the fact that the radical Maoist group boycotted the elections. According to unofficial projections of the election results, Funcinpec is likely to win 57 seats and the CPP 52 seats in the 120-seat National Assembly. Neither would come close to winning the two-thirds majority which would be required to pass a new constitution, making a coalition of the two main parties essential if the political process is to continue.

'For 23 years our people have suffered greatly and unjustly,' said the Prince. 'No one has the right to make them suffer any more.' Relishing his role as the only leader with the stature and support to command respect from all the rival Cambodian factions, Prince Sihanouk called for national reconciliation in the manner of a schoolmaster calling a classroom to order. He had stayed outside the country for much of the run-up to the elections, but had been thought to be planning a grand return.

Before the Prince's intervention there were mounting fears that the elections, which have involved 22,000 UN personnel and about pounds 1bn in UN funds, would be repudiated by the CPP which is unwilling to give up power 14 years after it was installed by Vietnamese troops to replace the bloody regime of Pol Pot. This would have led to renewed civil war - a possibility that was recognised by the UN Security Council on Wednesday night when it passed a resolution calling on all parties to recognise the election results.

The CPP controls an army and local militia of some 150,000 men, while the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the countryside have recently stepped up their resupplies of arms.