Western reporters recently returned from Cambodia have given graphic eyewitness accounts indicating killings under ousted ruler Pol Pot's regime may have been more widespread than previously believed.
Although they brought back no precise statistics, the returning newsmen report seeing mass graves and skeletal remains of execution victims in village after village.
"When I first read allegations of mass killings in Cambodia, I thought they were exaggerated," says Tiziano Terzani of the West German magazine Der Spiegel, referring to a three-year-old published account of Pol Pot's brutal legacy. "But now, after returning from Cambodia, I think the charges were too cautious."
Mr. Terzani and another returning correspondent, Nayan Chanda of the Far Eastern Economic Review, report evidence of killings extending far beyond possible staged displays by the present Vietnamese-backed government.
Still, the present government has an obvious interest in discrediting the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.
"It is difficult to stop at any hamlet along Kampuchea's [Cambodia's] highways," writes Mr. Chanda, "without being led by people -- some silent in their anger, some weeping -- to the graves."
At Vot Tuol village on Highway 6 an estimated 583 people, Mr. Chanda was told , were slaughtere there between 1977 and 1979.
Mr. Terzani reports that he had almost complete freedom of movement on Cambodia's roads. Everywhere he stopped, he was given accounts of the killings, shown fields full of bones, and wells crammed with skeletons.
"The Khmers have been digging out the graves -- for gold teeth fillings which they can use to barter for rice," he said.
Mr. Chanda writes of a visit to a textile plant at Kompong Cham where workers said 50,000 persons had been massacred in fields a kilometer away.
"Bodies had originally been piled in pits which had been excavated by people searching the skulls for gold fillings."
Many of the dead were soldiers and officials of the anti-communist Lon Nol government, as well as more educated people such as lawyers and doctors.
In rural areas, many of the executed were "new people," former city residents who were marched out to begin new lives in villages.
Much killing also took place in Phnom Penh prisons. Mr. Terzani reports seeing documents for 25,000 prisoners executed in one prison during the Pol Pot years. Photographs taken of prisoners before and after their execution included 1,500 children.
Reliable statistics on just how many died are not available, and recent visits by correspondents shed little light on this.
One estimate is that some 3 million of Cambodia's 7.5 million people died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Refugee testimony suggests the number of executions totaled anywhere from half a million to a million.
If correct, almost half the country's population died during the Pol Pot years.
In defense, Khmer Rouge Premier Khieu Samphan has told Western reporters his men killed only 10,000 people. These, he said, were Vietnamese agents.