Hanoi removes key obstacle to Cambodian peace talks

An important concession by Vietnam has opened the way for talks next month with Cambodia's guerrilla leaders, including the Khmer Rouge. The proposed meeting, scheduled for late July in the Indonesian city of Bogor, could be a small step in untangling a nine-year stalemate over Vietnamese troop presence in Cambodia.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach stated that Vietnam has dropped a previous condition that it would meet with warring Khmer factions only after an agreement is reached between the Cambodian government and the guerrillas. One of those factions, the Khmer Rouge, has not indicated whether it will attend the ``cocktail party'' meeting.

As former rulers of Cambodia who were ousted by Vietnam in 1979, the Khmer Rouge command the largest fighting force in a tripartite anti-Hanoi coalition, lead by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Their decision to attend will likely be influenced by China, their main backer. Prince Sihanouk has said he will attend.

Vietnam has been under pressure from its main ally, the Soviet Union, to find a political solution in Cambodia since the Soviets agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. One sign of Hanoi's new attitude came May 26 when it announced a larger-than-usual partial troop withdrawal from Cambodia starting this month.

The Vietnamese have opposed talks with Cambodian opponents before an internal settlement is reached, fearing such a move would imply they were the aggressors in Cambodia. Hanoi contends it was invited to invade by Khmer Rouge defectors. In April, Sihanouk stated he would cease calling Vietnam an ``aggressor'' if it agrees to talk with him directly about Cambodia's future.

The ``cocktail party'' idea, designed to keep negotiations informal and avoid face-losing posturing, was accepted by Vietnam last July. The proposal calls for a two-stage conference, first involving only the warring Cambodian parties and later bringing in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. China, the United States, and the Soviet Union would possibly be involved at a later stage.

If the conference takes place, it will follow up on talks last December and January between Prince Sihanouk and the leader of the Hanoi-backed government in Cambodia, Hun Sen.

If Vietnam and all the Khmer parties show up in Bogor without the Khmer Rouge, this will put the spotlight on the Khmer Rouge, and possibly support Hanoi's charge that China and Western backers of the tripartite coalition would be willing to allow the Khmer Rouge to avoid political dialogue and return to power after Vietnam withdraws. US officials have warned of ``chaos'' in Cambodia if Vietnam withdraws totally in 1990.

[The Washington Post reports that China has informed the US that it would give Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his top aides asylum should a settlement be reached.]

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