Voters brave the weather and Khmer Rouge: Third of electorate turns out on first of six days of polling despite guerrilla threats

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PHNOM PENH (Agencies) - Defying threats by Khmer Rouge guerrillas and monsoon rains, more than 1.5 million Cambodians jammed polling stations yesterday to vote in the country's first democratic elections in 42 years.

Khmer Rouge activities in a few provinces caused some disruptions, 'but nothing very serious', said Yasushi Akashi, head of the United Nations peace-keeping mission that is organising the elections.

During the campaign, Khmer Rouge guerrillas launched a series of attacks to scare voters, threatening to kill those who did vote. UN officials said between 1.5 and 2 million people - one-third of those eligible - voted yesterday for a 120-member Constituent Assembly that should adopt a democratic constitution within three months and form a government. Voting continues until Friday.

In the tense north-west province of Siem Reap, turn-out was higher than expected. In other areas, the eagerness could hardly be controlled. 'We thought people were afraid to vote, but we were wrong,' said Sgt Gerrit Bosman, a marine from the Netherlands, serving with the UN in Banteay Meanchey province.

In Kompong Cham province, north-east of Phnom Penh, 200,000 voters defied rain, roads turned into quagmires and threats of violence to vote. The province was deluged by two days of monsoon rains that made many country roads impassable.

UN troops frisked voters for weapons and checked bags with metal detectors at 1,500 polling stations nationwide. But violence caused UN officials to close three polling stations. In southern Kampot province, a shell fired by the Khmer Rouge crashed near the stations. Then 100 guerrillas stormed one of the stations and held several UN policemen and Cambodian electoral workers for an hour before releasing them unharmed.

In Kampot also, a small group of Khmer Rouge fired at ballot boxes, halting voting for a half-hour. In north-western Banteay Meanchey, shells believed fired by the Khmer Rouge crashed near two polling stations, slightly injuring two voters.

Of the 20 parties, the ruling, Communist-style Cambodian People's Party and the pro-West Funcinpec are expected to take the most votes.

UN analysts say the Khmer Rouge fears the government will win the election and gain legitimacy. The government has been linked to dozens of political killings, especially directed against Funcinpec, and to widespread intimidation of voters.

UN officials in Kompong Cham chased away government agents who loitered outside a polling station, apparently pressuring people to vote for the government. Fighting between the government and the Khmer Rouge has continued throughout the UN mission's 14-month presence.

The Funcinpec leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said his father, the national reconciliation leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, would talk with the Khmer Rouge after the election. Hopes for peace rose after Prince Sihanouk, the only leader accepted by all Cambodian factions including the Khmer Rouge, returned home on Saturday, after several weeks abroad, to support the elections.