MINES are being laid secretly by the Cambodian government around the country's most famous tourist attraction - the 1,000-year-old temple complex of Angkor.
Despite denials by a United Nations agency supervising restoration of the temples and by a government minister, a policeman has described how he laid mines within a stone's throw of the sites to protect them from Khmer Rouge guerrillas and bandits seeking to take ancient statues.
The Angkor temples are some of South-east Asia's most awe-inspiring cultural monuments and, despite the dangers of war and kidnapping in Cambodia, tourists still trickle in to visit them.
But the symbols of past glory are being inexorably dragged into the current strife. They are close to a large Khmer Rouge base and guerrilla infiltration routes and are increasingly a target for organised smugglers of antiquities, who can sell a single stone statue for tens of thousands of dollars.
'Even though it is a tourist site, it is also a battlefield,' the Angkor police chief, General Chea Sophat, told a local newspaper. 'I have to lay mines because I do not know when the Khmer Rouge will attack, and I also have to protect against bandits.'
The General and local government officials have said tourists are not endangered by mines they claim are laid deep in the jungle before sunset and taken up next morning. But last month a village woman was killed by one set inside the Angkor Thom temple complex's perimeter.
A policeman resting in the shade of a lesser-visited temple said the mine-planting began a month ago. Part of a special force set up to guard the temple complex, he was responsible for setting the fatal mine. 'The woman came to tap gum from the trees at about 5.40am. I had told the local villagers not to go out until 7am, since I began taking the mines up at 6am.'
The policeman said he set three mines every evening at 5.30pm, and colleagues did the same near other temples. It was up to guards manning road blocks to warn tourists.
General Chea Sophat had said the mines were being laid 5 to 10 kilometres from the temples, but the policeman said he was laying them much closer. In Phnom Penh, Vann Moulivann, a minister without portfolio, claimed the area 'was entirely de-mined'.
Officials from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation attacked journalists over the weekend for suggesting mines were being laid.
The Angkor temples were built between the ninth and 12th centuries, designed to glorify the god-kings then ruling much of South-east Asia.
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