Cambodia holds ailing Khmer Rouge president

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PHNOM PENH, Nov 14 (Reuters) Former Khmer Rouge president and Pol Pot confidant Khieu Samphan was flown to hospital in the Cambodian capital today and put under military guard after reports he had collapsed at his jungle home on the Thai border.

The helicopter airlift authorised by Prime Minister Hun Sen fuelled speculation the French-educated guerrilla chief was about to join four other members of Pol Pot's inner circle in the custody of Cambodia's UN-backed ''Killing Fields'' tribunal.

However, a spokesman said the 56 million dollars court had not issued a warrant for Khieu Samphan, widely believed to be one of the five deemed by prosecutors to be ''most responsible'' for the Khmer Rouge's 1.7 million estimated victims.

''Nothing has been issued by the court regarding him,'' court spokesman Peter Foster said. ''His transport to the hospital was organised totally by the government.'' Hun Sen, who lost an eye as a frontline Khmer Rouge commander in the ultra-Maoist movement's final assault on Phnom Penh in 1975, said he wanted to make sure Khieu Samphan did not die before he could face justice.

''If he dies, people will blame the government,'' he told an assembly of students in Phnom Penh.

Khieu Samphan's daughter said her father, thought to be 78, had hurt himself when he fell out of a hammock at his wooden home in the old Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin and then complained of ''numbness'' and ''sluggish movement''.

His attempt to go to a hospital in Thailand was blocked.

''My dad asked authorities for permission to leave for treatment, but they refused,'' Khieu Maly told Reuters.

Special forces soldiers prevented reporters from entering the grounds of Phnom Penh's Calmette Hospital where Khieu Samphan was taken under military escort.

TRIBUNAL ASTIR His transfer came amid a flurry of activity by the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal, which started work in earnest a few months ago after nearly a decade of delays caused by wrangling over jurisdiction and cash.

Former Khmer rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife -- both life-long friends of ''Brother Number One'' Pol Pot -- were arrested and charged on Monday with crimes against humanity for their role in the regime's 1975-1979 reign of terror.

''Brother Number Two'' Nuon Chea, who had also lived in Pailin, is in the custody of the court on similar charges, as is the Beijing-backed regime's chief jailer, Duch, who ran Phnom Penh's ''S-21'' torture and interrogation centre.

Khieu Samphan was the leading intellectual among the small group of Cambodian students in 1950s Paris who became imbued with communism and returned home to the southeast Asian nation to form the core of the guerrilla movement that became the Khmer Rouge.

However, he published a book three years ago portraying himself as a virtual prisoner of the regime and denying knowledge of any atrocities.

Many of the Khmer Rouge's victims were executed. The rest died of disease, starvation or overwork as Pol Pot pursued his dream of creating an agrarian peasant utopia. Pol Pot died in 1998 in the final Khmer Rouge redoubt of Anlong Veng.

REUTERS ARB BD1450

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