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Cambodia lays red carpet over the killing fields

Two former Khmer Rouge leaders set out Thursday with their well-dressed wives, children and grandchildren on a government-arranged pleasure tour of the country they ravaged in the 1970s, a trip that is expected to take them through the killing fields of their murderous rule.

High-level officials and soldiers armed with assault rifles escorted the motorcade of chauffeur-driven Toyota Land Cruisers to the seaside resort of Sihanoukville, 110 miles southwest of the capital.

The VIP treatment for Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea is feeding growing anger among human rights and democracy groups. Cambodian newspapers have reported the government has given the men $10,000 expense accounts, even though they are suspected of having plenty of money of their own.

The reports could not be confirmed, and it wasn't clear why the government facilitated the elaborate tour. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has declined to prosecute the two for war crimes, has said the country needs reconciliation with its former tormentors.

Government helicopters flew the two men from their jungle hideouts to the capital of Phnom Penh, where they relaxed at a luxury hotel for two days before setting off on their trip Thursday.

Looking like upper-class Cambodians, not the peasant Communists they have long claimed to be, they checked into the Seaside, the best hotel in town. Still, it was a step down from their accommodations in Phnom Penh, where they enjoyed $240-a-night suites at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel. Rooms at the Seaside run from $30 to $60, more than the average Cambodian earns in a month.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were members of the inner circle of the late Pol Pot, under whom the Khmer Rouge won a civil war in 1975 and forced the population to toil in agricultural collectives. One in five Cambodians _ roughly 2-million people _ died of overwork, starvation, disease and executions during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979 by a Vietnamese invasion and spent the years since fighting a guerrilla war, mostly from the jungle along the Thai border.

This week, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea emerged on assurances from Hun Sen _ a former Khmer Rouge cadre himself _ that they would not be prosecuted for their genocidal regime. Hun Sen says the amnesties are needed to prevent renewed war, but the Khmer Rouge movement has dwindled to the point of near extinction.

Ordinary Cambodians, often fearful of speaking their minds, have expressed little open outrage at the red carpet the government has rolled out for the bloodstained former rulers. But advocates of human rights and democracy in Cambodia are incensed.

"It is a contempt for human life and a mockery of the memory those million victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities," the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a non-governmental think tank, said.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea on Thursday began the first leg of a tour that will take them to the ancient Angkor temples as well as their home provinces. Along the way they will pass roads dotted with memorials filled with the bones and skulls of thousands of their victims.

The memorials were erected by Vietnamese troops on discovering what has come to be known as the Khmer Rouge's "killing fields."