WAS the abduction this week of six United Nations military observers by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge an isolated incident or part of a concerted anti-UN campaign? That is a question Security Council members will be weighing carefully over the next several days.
After many hours of non-cooperation, the Khmer Rouge leadership finally said it would instruct its local commander to free the peacekeepers. Yet despite reservations, unless the incident proves part of a clear pattern, the Council is expected to press on with its charted course.
"It would be one thing if we had evidence that the Khmer Rouge were going on the offensive and soldiers were being [steadily] picked off, but I think this is a blip rather than a significant change in Khmer Rouge strategy," a Western diplomat says.
Under a resolution passed Nov. 30 that included sanctions and a scolding for the Khmer Rouge, the Security Council said it would hold elections by May 1993, with or without the Khmer Rouge. The guerrilla faction, one of the four parties to the Cambodian peace accords signed in Paris October 1991, has refused to demobilize troops or allow UN election workers to register voters in areas under its control.
The latest Council resolution sets Jan. 31, 1993, as the deadline for involving any more areas in the elections process.
Technically, the Khmer Rouge action against UN forces this week does not stand alone. A top UN peacekeeping official was shot in a helicopter as he tried to investigate the hostage incident. In recent weeks as many as a dozen UN helicopters have been fired on by the Khmer Rouge. A UN electoral team was held by the Khmer Rouge for several hours in August.
The Khmer Rouge says it will not disarm until the UN removes all Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. The UN says none are left. The guerrilla faction also wants a greater voice in the transitional government, arguing that the Phnom Penh government retains too much power.
The Khmer Rouge hostage-taking occurred one day after the Council called for a moratorium on oil imports to and timber and gem exports from areas held by the Khmer Rouge.
Just what prompted the recent Khmer Rouge attacks on UN personnel and equipment and what the guerrillas hope to gain are still open questions. The Khmer Rouge has long been extremely isolated and analysts say that limitation has had a decided impact on the group's perspective.
"It's conceivable that the Khmer Rouge are still engaged in a process that they think will give them maximum advantage in an election," comments John Bresnan, a senior research scholar with Columbia University's East Asia Institute who met with several senior Khmer leaders during an August trip to Phnom Penh.
For its part, the UN has a huge investment riding on a success in Cambodia. More than 20,000 UN soldiers, police, and civilians are part of the $2 billion-a-year operation. With its credibility on the line, diplomats say, the UN is not about to let the Khmer Rouge or any would-be saboteur sink the plan and resume the civil war.