Keating government in clear over conduct in Wilson kidnap

ACTIONS by the Cambodian army, not the Australian government, have been blamed for causing the murder of Australian tourist David Wilson and two other foreigners in 1994, a coroner has found.

An escalation in the military offensive by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces in the region where Mr Wilson was killed - despite assurances from the Cambodian government that no military attack would take place until Mr Wilson and two other hostages were safe - led to the 29-year-old Melburnian's death, the coroner ruled.

Mr Wilson, Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 27, and Briton Mark Slater, 28, were kidnapped on a train in Cambodia on July 26, 1994, and murdered by the Khmer Rouge two months later.

Mr Braquet and Mr Slater were both fatally shot, while Mr Wilson died from multiple skull fractures inflicted by a heavy blow or blows with a blunt instrument. All three were buried in shallow graves where they were killed at a Khmer Rouge camp on Vine Mountain.

Before they were murdered, the kidnappers demanded ransoms, but the Keating government did not meet their demands, saying Australia did not negotiate with kidnappers because it would only encourage further kidnappings.

In handing down the inquest findings yesterday, 14 years after it began, the Victorian Deputy State Coroner Iain West said it was likely the development that precipitated the order of the Khmer Rouge General Nuon Paet to kill the hostages was the military escalation by Cambodian forces.

The three foreigners' governments adopted the position that the responsibility for the conduct of the negotiation rested with the Cambodian government.

Repeated assurances were made to Australian officials that no military attack would take place until the hostages were safe.

But the Cambodian armed forces intensified shelling in the region, which the coroner was satisfied enraged General Paet and almost certainly adversely affected his attitude towards negotiations over Mr Wilson's release.

''Such a step was inconsistent with promises to the contrary that had been made at the highest levels of the Cambodian government on multiple occasions,'' Mr West said. ''It was appropriate in all the circumstances for the Australian government and its representatives in Cambodia to rely upon these representations which were honoured for a significant period of the hostages' captivity.''

The Australian government was criticised at the time for not doing enough to ensure Mr Wilson's safe release, including paying the ransom, or facilitating private payment of a ransom to General Paet. It also declined to threaten to limit or withdraw aid.

But the coroner said it was necessary to be mindful of the ''exceptionally difficult circumstances'' confronting officials.

The coroner was satisfied there was no legitimate reason for criticising the Australian government, which did all it could to secure Mr Wilson's release.

Mr Wilson's father, Peter, said he was not surprised by the findings, which were ''the same old rubbish story - we did everything possible and the government couldn't do anything more''.

The former foreign minister Gareth Evans yesterday described Mr Wilson's murder as ''by far my most harrowing experience in 13 years of government''.

''I have always strongly believed … that there was nothing more any Australian official could reasonably have done to change the course of events,'' he said.

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