Cambodian PM, opposition leader hold tense talks
By SOPHENG CHEANG and JUSTINE DRENNAN
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- Cambodia's long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen met the head of the main opposition party Monday in a bid to resolve a political stalemate, a day after violent clashes on the streets of Phnom Penh left one dead and several wounded.
After a four-hour meeting at the National Assembly, the two political foes found some rare common ground, but Hun Sen showed no sign of bending to the opposition's demands for an independent inquiry into alleged cheating in the country's July elections.
Opposition protests that turned violent Sunday have marked one of the biggest challenges yet against the autocratic rule of Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly three decades.
In scattered clashes Sunday, security forces used water cannons, smoke grenades and live ammunition, rights groups said, killing one person and wounding at least 10 over the course of the day.
The opposition has called for a boycott of parliament's first session Sept. 23 unless an independent committee investigates its claims of voting irregularities and other cheating. It has vowed to maintain a protest until Tuesday evening at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, after which the party will decide whether to continue, said Yim Sovann, the opposition party's spokesman.
Thousands remained at the protest site Monday.
"We have different views and different perceptions, but we are Cambodians -- we have the same blood, so we do not consider each other enemies," Yim Sovann told reporters after the meeting ended.
The two sides issued a joint statement saying they agreed on three points -- to meet again for more talks, to ensure future protests were peaceful and to set up a committee for reforming the election process in the future.
But, the ruling party rejected the main demand of Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party, saying the results of July 28 elections were ratified on Sept. 8 and the government has no legal means of meeting the request.
"The Cambodian People's Party cannot walk backward and establish an independent committee (to investigate the results)," said Prak Sokhon, a ruling party spokesman. "The election body and the Constitutional Council have already made the decision. The Cambodian People's Party won 68 seats and the CNRP won 55 seats."
The opposition's gains were a dramatic increase from the 29 seats it won in the previous election, but Sam Rainsy says the opposition would have won a majority if the election were conducted fairly.
Political analysts say the ongoing protests were mostly aimed at appeasing angry supporters and strengthening the opposition's hand in negotiations with Hun Sen.
The government allowed the rally to go ahead, but warned protesters to stay inside the capital's Freedom Park, where tens of thousands of people had gathered peacefully earlier Sunday to hear Sam Rainsy speak.
Thousands of opposition supporters marched across various parts of the city anyway, and police -- apparently under orders not to intervene -- mostly let them.
The marches turned violent when about 200 demonstrators tried to dismantle a barricade of razor wire and roadblocks that had been erected to keep them away from the Royal Palace. Police fired water cannons and then smoke grenades, and demonstrators responded with rocks, shoes and other objects.
Shortly after that clash, Sam Rainsy visited the scene and urged the crowd -- which had swelled to nearly 1,000 people -- to stay calm and return to the main protest site.
But in a separate incident late Sunday night, police fired more smoke bombs to disperse another group of protesters who had tried to remove another barricade near the opposition's headquarters, witnesses said.
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