Suspected Khmer Rouge guerrillas this week blew up a train, gunned down passengers and abducted scores of people including three Western tourists, government officials and diplomats confirmed today.
The attack Tuesday on a passenger train bound for the southern port city of Sihanounkville left at least nine people dead, the officials said. After blowing the train up with mines about 80 miles south of the capital, the gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons on cars packed with up to 1,000 civilian passengers, then marched scores of people off into the jungle, investigators said.
Most of the Cambodian hostages were later released, but three Western tourists - from France, Australia and Britain - and three Vietnamese apparently were taken hostage, diplomats and railroad officials said.
The attack came a month after Cambodia passed legislation outlawing the Khmer Rouge following the breakdown of peace talks in early June. The legislation effectively ended hopes of a political settlement with the rebel faction, which has been waging a low-intensity guerrilla war off and on for 15 years since being ousted from power.
During nearly four years of brutal rule after seizing power in 1975, the radical Communist Khmer Rouge presided over the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. The faction boycotted U.N.-sponsored elections held in May 1993 under a $2 billion U.N. peace plan. In recent months, the guerrillas have stepped up activity against the shaky, year-old coalition government of former battlefield enemies that emerged from the elections.
According to intelligence sources here, leaders of the Khmer Rouge have ordered their combatants to capture foreigners to pressure the international community to halt support for the young government.
The Khmer Rouge may be targeting Westerners from countries accused of backing the new government, including the United States, Australia and France, the sources said. Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, has long been a hated enemy of the group.
Earlier this month, Australian and British investigators announced that skeletal remains found in the same area as the train attack were believed to be those of two young women and a man from Britain and Australia who were abducted by suspected Khmer Rouge guerrillas in April.
An American medical volunteer was captured by the Khmer Rouge in the same area in March, but she was released more than a month later.
In June, two Belgian tourists disappeared in an area under Khmer Rouge control in northwestern Cambodia. Their fate remains unknown.
Earlier this month, a team of 90 U.S. military personnel arrived in Cambodia to begin repair work on a highway and bridges in the vicinity of Tuesday's train attack. The Americans also plan to train Cambodians in clearing land mines.
In an interview last month, a senior Khmer Rouge official warned that U.S. military personnel would be considered targets "whose safety we cannot guarantee" if they were deployed in Cambodia.
U.S. officials have expressed concern about the team's safety in view of the latest violence.
Bandits, including members of the Cambodian army, also have been known to attack and rob trains and motor vehicles in Cambodia. The area in which Tuesday's train attack occurred, however, has long been dominated by the Khmer Rouge.
In response to last month's legislation formally outlawing the group, the Khmer Rouge declared a provisional government based in a remote jungle zone, effectively partitioning the country. Analysts said the result is likely to be an increase in fighting.