Chhun Yasith, the Cambodian-American accountant who heads the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, said Sunday the 11 men arrested by the government last week are not soldiers in his organization.
But he did confirm that Peter Leng, a Cambodian-American described by police as the “mastermind” of the rumored rebellion, is working for the CFF.
Peter Leng “is in Thailand, preparing for the second attack,” Chhun Yasith said in a phone interview from Long Beach, in the US state of California. “There are plenty of Cambodian-Americans with him, more than 60.”
Chhun Yasith said he still plans to overthrow the government before the end of this year. But the government is lying about last week’s arrests, he said, to make him reveal his plans before he is ready.
“They are not my men. I deny that. They belong to the government [which is] trying to tempt the tiger from his hole,” he said. “They want us to show our fist, because we are hiding among them and they do not know where.”
Sar Kheng, deputy prime minister and co-minister of Interior, said he is not surprised that Chhun Yasith is disclaiming any connection with the suspects.
“The person who has the problem never answers or admits the truth. We follow the evidence that we have collected, and the evidence shows that [Chhun Yasith] has ordered the attacks,” Sar Kheng said.
He added that Cambodian officials are “working in cooperation with the US government” to ascertain Chhun Yasith’s role. The US-based accountant has said in the past the CFF has broken no law in the US, where it is registered as a lobbying organization.
Chhun Yasith expanded on that claim Sunday, saying the CFF has broken no laws in Thailand, either.
“They haven’t brought any guns into Cambodia or Thailand. But I cannot say where they are. That would be dangerous for them,” he said.
Government officials said Friday they had foiled an attack on Phnom Penh by arresting the alleged senior members of the CFF.
Four suspects were arrested in Phnom Penh and seven others in Battambang, according to police, who said a number of guns, grenades, rocket launchers and mobile telephones were confiscated.
Despite the arrests, the government says it does not consider the CFF capable of mounting a serious threat to the country.
Last Nov 24, about 50 people launched a predawn attack on the capital, firing shots at government buildings in the worst violence seen in Phnom Penh since the 1997 factional fighting.
As many as eight people died in the fighting, which was followed by widespread arrests after police discovered computer lists of several hundred alleged CFF members.
Last June, 30 men were tried and five—including Chhun Yasith, tried in absentia, and his chief lieutenant, Richard Kiri Kim—were sentenced to life imprisonment. The other 25 received shorter sentences.
Chhun Yasith also denied government reports that a CFF attack was planned for the Pchum Ben holiday.
“I cannot say when” the CFF rebellion will occur, he said, “but it will not be over Pchum Ben.” The holiday concludes a week from today.
Police scrambled Sunday to uncover more information about the men in custody, but would not comment on whether they believe there are more alleged rebels involved.
So Sam An, deputy police chief in Battambang, said police believe Peter Leng is in Bangkok, along with another Cambodian-American named Khieu Chea.
“As far as I know, Peter Leng never came to Battambang, but ran things from Bangkok. We know he sent money from Bangkok,” the deputy chief said.
So Sam An said those arrested in Battambang include Mok Vutha, the alleged Minister of Information for the CFF, who is also from the US; Leng Thy, a Battambang district police officer; and Chey Vuthy, engineering battalion commander for RCAF Division 6.
Also arrested were farmers Leng Than, 43, An Ath, 27, and Uk Sopha, 19; and construction worker Chheng Lim, 25.
Battambang police confiscated 18 weapons, including rocket launchers and rockets, automatic weapons and ammunition.
Bith Kim Hong, deputy chief of police for Phnom Penh, said those arrested in the capital were Cheang Sophal, 33; Neak Salim, 42; Plang Bunthuon, 31; and Ek Chan Ei, 39.
(Reporting by Jody McPhillips, Phann Ana, and Thet Sambath)