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PAILIN, Cambodia (Reuters) - French and Cambodian judges of the U.N.-backed "Killing Fields" tribunal met former Khmer Rouge fighters in one of Pol Pot's final strongholds on Tuesday to allay their fears about the long-awaited trials.
Even though the $56 million court was set up to investigate only those "most responsible" for the deaths of the Khmer Rouge's estimated 1.7 million victims, many ageing former guerrillas are worried they will be sucked into the process.
However, French investigating judge Marcel Lemonde assured government officials in Pailin, a Khmer Rouge redoubt on the Thai border, this was not the case and asked for help in convicting five top cadres already charged with atrocities.
"The court cannot achieve its goal without participation from the local authorities and public," Lemonde said.
Sam Yet, a 49-year-old former black-shirted guerrilla, said he was ready to provide evidence against his former commanders, a rare expression of support for the court in a region where Pol Pot is still revered as a national hero.
"The leaders of the Khmer Rouge should be held accountable and punished for their roles," he told Reuters as he walked with his wife down the main street in Pailin, a wild border town under Khmer Rouge control until a 1997 surrender deal.
"Brother Number One" Pol Pot died in the final redoubt of Anlong Veng, also on the Thai border, in 1998, nearly two decades after his four-year ultra-Maoist regime was removed by a Vietnamese invasion.
However, his right-hand-man, Nuon Chea, as well as former president Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife were charged with crimes against humanity or war crimes last year.
The other suspect in detention is Duch, commandant of the notorious "S-21" interrogation and torture centre in Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng high school. Duch has already confessed to mass murder and implicated members of Pol Pot's inner circle.
Pailin governor Ee Chhean, one of Pol Pot's messengers during his time in the jungle, said he believed the trials would not stir up too much dirt in a region where all survivors have dark secrets.
"The government is not going to have a trial that causes social unrest," he said.