Cambodia rivals to meet after protest bloodshed

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's political rivals were set to hold fresh crisis talks Monday as crowds massed for a second day to protest a disputed election, following violence that left one demonstrator dead and several wounded.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy were due to meet at 9.00am (0200 GMT) at the National Assembly in search of a way out of the political standoff triggered by July polls marred by allegations of electoral fraud.

The talks follow violent clashes in the capital Phnom Penh on Sunday on the fringes of a mass demonstration that drew an estimated 20,000 opposition supporters demanding an independent probe into the vote.

Security forces fired smoke grenades, tear gas and water cannon at rock-throwing protesters.

One demonstrator was killed, according to several witnesses including prominent activist Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

"I saw with my own eyes he is dead. He was shot in the head," Ou Virak told AFP, adding that while military police had fired "many shots" into the air, the circumstances of the man's death remained unclear.

At least 10 other protesters were injured, Ou Virak said.

"I urge the authorities to ensure that this tragedy is an isolated incident," he said, appealing to both the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and authorities to calm the situation.

Military police spokesman Kheng Tito denied the security forces had fired live ammunition.

"The military police used only batons and shields and police used tear gas. We did not use live rounds," he said late Sunday.

CNRP official Kuy Bunroeun, one of the rally organisers, blamed the violence on the authorities.

"It was the mistake of the authorities," he said. "The violence stemmed from the blocking of the roads."

He said the opposition would push for an independent probe of the alleged election irregularities at its meeting with Hun Sen.

"Our stance is the same as the people's. We need an investigation to find the truth so that justice is rendered to the people."

But senior ruling party member Cheam Yeap told AFP that the talks would only address the sharing of the leadership of the parliament.

"It's too late to create an independent committee (to investigate the results)," he said.

The opposition was set to hold the second of three planned days of rallies in a park in the capital on Monday to keep up the pressure on Hun Sen.

Ahead of the start of the rolling demo on Sunday, the government set a limit on the number of protesters at 10,000 and said the gathering must finish by around 6pm local time.

But thousands of demonstrators remained into the night, vowing to stay until their demands are met.

"Our votes were robbed," said 56-year-old Srin Chea, who travelled from southern Kandal province.

"I am angry. I want justice. I am not afraid of death."

Hun Sen, 61, has been in power for 28 years and has vowed to rule until he is 74.

A former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia's rise from the ashes of war, his government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.

Rainsy addressed thousands of cheering supporters at the main protest site on Sunday, calling for a recount or new vote.

He said opposition lawmakers would boycott the opening of the parliament on September 23 unless the government addressed the alleged election irregularities.

"Brothers, this is an important mission to rescue the nation," Rainsy told demonstrators, many holding banners reading "my vote, my nation" and "where is my vote?".

The violence came despite a rare meeting on Saturday between Rainsy and Hun Sen, hosted by King Norodom Sihamoni, that was later described by the opposition leader as a "first step" towards ending the crisis.

According to final election results, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won 68 seats in the July polls against 55 for the opposition.

The CNRP has rejected the tally, alleging widespread vote rigging, but so far its efforts to challenge the results have failed and it has few formal options left in its bid to overturn Hun Sen's victory.