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Khmer Rouge Head Pol Pot Dies in Cambodia at Age 73

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post
HONG KONG

Twenty-three years after his black pajama-clad guerrillas marched into Cambodia's capital and launched one of this century's most horrific genocides, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died quietly Wednesday on a flowered mattress in a wooden-slat hut.

Televised footage from the Khmer Rouge's jungle haven Thursday night showed Pol Pot's lifeless body, arms at the sides, stretched out on a simple wooden bed, a green blanket partially covering his legs and his plastic sandals at the bedside. The former dictator's body lay where his wife discovered it when she went to arrange his mosquito netting.

American journalist Nate Thayer, a correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, returned to Thailand from the Cambodian jungle Thursday night and said he had no doubt that Pol Pot was dead. "He's dead," Thayer said in a telephone interview. "That was Pol Pot. There was no question that was Pol Pot."

Thayer said he spent several hours questioning Pol Pot's wife and daughter, as well as Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge commander who replaced Pol Pot as head of the outlawed guerrilla group, and said he believed the Khmer Rouge reports that Pol Pot, 73, died of natural causes. Thayer also said he inspected the body, poking it several times, and saw no outward evidence of foul play.

"He'd been fleeing for the last 20 days under very difficult circumstances," Thayer said. "It would be very logical that he would succumb because he was a very sick man to begin with."

In the last known film of him taken in July, a white-haired Pol Pot appeared frail and sickly, suffering from malaria and unable to walk without assistance.

Thai officials in Bangkok had been cautious in assessing reports of the death of the dictator deemed responsible for the deaths of between 1.5 million and 2 million Cambodians. "We are still awaiting independent verification, but everything points to it being true, that Pol Pot is dead," said Kobsak Chutikul, the Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Officials in Bangkok sent a military team to verify the death reports, and they took a handful of Thai journalists whose television footage has now been broadcast worldwide.

In Phnom Penh, which was celebrating the end of the Khmer new year's holiday, officials demanded to see Pol Pot's body before accepting the news of his demise. Local Cambodian radio and television carried no reports about Pol Pot's death, and those Cambodians informed about the news by journalists seeking comment were mostly skeptical, saying they had heard it too many times before.

Fueling the skepticism was the extraordinary coincidence of his passing, which came as the Clinton administration was gaining international support to put Pol Pot on trial, with the remaining Khmer Rouge troops seemingly ready to turn over their longtime leader.

"I don't want to believe that he's dead, and I don't have time in my life to believe Khmer Rouge propaganda anymore," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been compiling genocide evidence for use at a tribunal.

"If he's dead, hand over his body to the people, don't just take photographs," said Youk Chhang, interviewed by telephone in Phnom Penh. "I want to see him handcuffed and pushed into a jail, like his cadres did to me 20 years ago."

Youk Chhang expressed the frustration of many that Pol Pot's death has now robbed the world of the chance to force him to answer for his crimes.

"Those who survived and suffered through his genocide are never really going to have closure," said American journalist Sidney Schanberg, whose Cambodia memoir produced the movie "The Killing Fields."

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that Pol Pot's death should not end efforts to bring other Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

"The senior leaders fully share responsibility for what occurred and those responsible for crimes of that kind should be prosecuted," he said.

His death comes on the eve of the April 17, 1975, anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh. The government of Thailand said that it had been planning to announce Thursday that Bangkok was ready to enter into further discussions with Washington on apprehending Pol Pot.