Expanding Khmer Rouge trials could spark war: Cambodian PM

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's strongman Prime Minister Thursday warned that prosecuting more Khmer Rouge suspects in the country's UN-backed genocide court could ignite a civil war.

Hun Sen, himself a former low-level commander in the brutal communist regime, said the prosecution of officials "almost goes too far" and could start a new conflict in his country.

The Khmer Rouge massacred up to two million of its own people in the late 1970s. So far only three people have been convicted by the court.

Prosecutors are currently investigating two possible new cases against several lower-ranking cadres, a move which is strongly opposed by Hun Sen, who marked three decades in power last month.

"The expansion of the scope (for more cases) almost makes people return to the jungle," Hun Sen said during remarks at a conference in the capital Phnom Penh.

"If war reoccurs, how many people would die?" he asked, adding that "the value of peace, the value of lives" must be considered above seeking justice.

Critics have said there is no risk of renewed fighting since the country's civil war ended in 1998.

They have also accused Hun Sen's administration of trying to protect former regime members who are now in government.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998 without ever facing justice, the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern society in Cambodia in their quest for an agrarian Marxist utopia.

In its historic debut trial, the court in 2010 sentenced former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav to 30 years in prison - later increased to life on appeal -- for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.

In August, the two most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders - Nuon Chea, 88, known as "Brother Number Two", and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 83 - were given life sentences for crimes against humanity.

Their two-year trial focused on the forced evacuation of Cambodians from Phnom Penh into rural labour camps and murders at one execution site.

The pair are now currently undergoing a second trial centred around the killing of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim minorities, forced marriage and rape.