Seemingly far-fetched, story had support of witnesses, photos
Three days after grenades tore through a crowd of garment workers, other protesters and their families here in March 1997, some tall tales appeared in the Khmer-language press.
Four “escaped prisoners accused of piracy were killed by police on the top floor of a hotel in Sihanoukville,” according to a summary of media reports transcribed nearly three months later in Hawaii by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“Allegedly, these four were the participants in the grenade attack and were promised prison release, cash reward and a ‘vacation’ if this mission was accomplished. They were flown by helicopter to Sihanoukville. In other words, the actual perpetrators were killed to seal their mouths.”
The writer’s summary kept a skeptical distance, referring to the incident as the “alleged helicopter extraction.” And after the information was compiled on April 25, nearly a month after the attack, the FBI’s three-man investigative team took no action on the matter for nearly two weeks, until a source mentioned it over breakfast at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel on May 7, 1997.
But, according to newly declassified FBI records, the matter of the helicopter incident would continue to preoccupy US investigators until the very last FBI interview in Phnom Penh was conducted in the case over two years later on May 18, 1999.
After witness accounts and photographs of the helicopter surfaced, the FBI persistently asked the Cambodian military and police about the event in the apparent hopes of learning where the attackers went, thus helping to uncover the operation that carried out the massacre that left 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, including a US citizen.
According to an interview record, the breakfast contact on May 7, 1997, at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel (later torched and gutted during 2003’s anti-Thai riots) passed a rumor that, hours after the attack, at “approximately 2 pm on March 30, 1997, a helicopter landed near the Independence Monument on the road to the Cambodiana Hotel.”
The man said two of the grenade throwers had reportedly traveled to the spot from a nearby “CPP compound” in a Toyota Land Cruiser and were flown away. (Witnesses to the attack later said two of the assailants had fled into a CPP military compound.) Inside the helicopter was someone from Kandal province.
During an interview in room 149 of the same hotel six days later on May 13, a woman who refused to meet with police “for fear of her safety” said that between 4 pm and 4:30 pm on the day of the attack “she saw a small helicopter land on the grass circle on Preah Sisowath Street near the Chea Sim Park and the Hun Sen Park. This was the first time she had seen a helicopter land.”
“It was smaller than the helicopters she had seen flying overhead. The helicopter was dark green and had skids, not wheels. She did not know what kind of helicopter it was but knew it was a military helicopter,” according to a record of the interview.
“At almost the same time as the helicopter landed, a brand new black and/or dark green Toyota Land Cruiser parked near Hun Sen Park across the street from the helicopter.
“Two men in civilian clothes walked from the Toyota and entered the helicopter,” the woman said, adding that two other “men in uniform from the helicopter” entered the Toyota.
“After the exchange was complete, the helicopter took off and flew southeast toward Vietnam, and the Toyota departed the area,” the woman said, noting that she had an eyesight problem and could not see any of the men clearly enough to give good descriptions.
She did reveal that there was a photographer at the scene who told her he had identified one person in the helicopter.
While the name of the person supposedly