By SOPHENG CHEANG
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; 6:20 AM
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The former Khmer Rouge head of state left his home in the middle of the night in a pickup truck piled high with his belongings Tuesday, a neighbor said, a day after prosecutors began collecting evidence for the long-awaited trials of the regime's ex-leaders.
Khieu Samphan, 75, is among the handful of Khmer Rouge members expected to be prosecuted for atrocities committed during their reign of terror in the 1970s. It was not immediately clear whether he had absconded in an effort to avoid prosecution.
A tribunal spokesman, Reach Sambath, said court officials were not aware that he had left his home and were unable to comment.
Khieu Samphan's daughter, Khieu Rattana, said that he and his wife left their home in Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwestern Cambodia, to spend about two weeks visiting a friend in Battambang province, about 55 miles to the east.
She declined to say exactly where in Battambang he was going.
A neighbor, however, said the couple told him they expected to be gone for longer.
They packed numerous household items, including pots, a portable gas cooker, a small table and sofa, groceries and clothes, the neighbor said on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety in an area still inhabited by former Khmer Rouge fighters.
The neighbor said he helped the couple pack for their trip and Khieu Samphan's wife said they were leaving for about "two or three months." As they packed the belongings into a pickup truck Monday evening, Khieu Samphan was listening to a radio broadcast about the progress being made in preparing the U.N.-backed trials to try the regime's ex-leaders.
The couple left their home in the middle of the night, he said.
Prosecutors on Monday began gathering evidence for the trial, which is expected to begin in 2007. It remains unclear how many of the former leaders will be brought to trial.
Khieu Rattana dismissed speculation that her father was trying to flee. She said he knows he cannot escape.
"If they want to catch him, they can still do that no matter where he tries to run," she said by phone from the capital Phnom Penh where she lives and works.
Khieu Samphan was the head of state of the Khmer Rouge regime, whose reign of terror between 1975-79 left some 1.7 million people dead from starvation, disease, overwork and execution.
He has lived in Pailin since 1999. Other ex-Khmer Rouge leaders who live nearby are Nuon Chea, chief Khmer Rouge ideologue, and Ieng Sary, the regime's former foreign minister. All are expected to be called as defendants at the upcoming genocide trial.
Ieng Sary and his wife live in Cambodia, moving between houses in Pailin, Phnom Penh and Malai, another former Khmer Rouge stronghold in the northwest, said their daughter, Ieng Vichida.
"They are not going anywhere," she said. "They are old, and their state of health is up and down everyday."
Many fear that aging Khmer Rouge leaders may die before they can stand trial.
A 2003 agreement between Cambodia and the United Nations said the tribunal was aimed at prosecuting "senior leaders" of the Khmer Rouge and those most responsible for the crimes committed during its reign.
Pol Pot, the late leader of Khmer Rouge, died in 1998.