UN Britons freed in Cambodia

THE KHMER Rouge yesterday freed a party of United Nations military observers, including two Britons, but stepped up its game of cat and mouse with international peace-keepers in Cambodia by virtually imprisoning the staff of the only UN outpost in its territory.

A UN spokesman said the activities of the organisation's 12 staff in the western town of Pailin, whose gem mines are an important source of revenue for the Khmer Rouge, had been 'progressively curtailed' over the past two weeks. Since 8 January the movement had insisted supplies be brought in by road rather than air. Confrontations with Khmer Rouge troops had followed, and on Monday armed guards had been placed on the UN workers' house. It was not clear whether they were being allowed outside.

Two military observers, two election officials, policemen and interpreters - all unarmed - are based at Pailin. Their harassment appears to mark a hardening of attitude by the Khmer Rouge, which killed more than a million Cambodians when it held power in the late 1970s. Despite agreeing in 1991 to an international operation designed to restore peace and hold elections, the movement has refused to allow the UN into the areas under its control, apart from Pailin, and has detained military monitors on six occasions.

The latest such incident ended yesterday with the release of Lieutenant-Commander Alexander Manning, Sergeant David O'Connor, a Chilean naval officer and a Cambodian interpreter. They were held for two days near Kompong Thom.

In Peking, Cambodia's former ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, named 5 April as his preferred date for the presidential election he has proposed. He retreated to the Chinese capital in November, ostensibly for medical treatment, after the idea was greeted coolly by some permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Now, however, with the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia also under pressure from an upsurge in political violence, a presidential election seems almost certain to be held. As the likely winner, Prince Sihanouk might be able to hold the Cambodian factions together while a national assembly is elected and spends three months drawing up a new constitution, as envisaged in the peace plan.

The Hun Sen government, which is held responsible for most of the recent attacks on opposition party workers and offices, yesterday endorsed Prince Sihanouk's proposed election date. Many fear that the Prince, once installed as president, might do a deal with the Phnom Penh authorities to exclude both the Khmer Rouge and the UN, but this was denied yesterday by Mr Hun Sen's principal spokesman.

In calling for the presidential poll to be held early in April, however, Prince Sihanouk is distancing himself from his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who heads the family party. The party, known by its French initials as Funcinpec, expects to come out best in the national assembly elections, which are tentatively scheduled for May. Prince Ranariddh, who hopes to become prime minister, wants the two elections held as close together as possible so as to ride on his father's coat-tails.