A Tragedy of No Importance, by Rich Garella and Eric Pape
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TOM NICOLETTI and another FBI agent, Peter Hoffman,[n] flew in to Phnom Penh on April 17, 1997.[n]

The rainy season had not yet arrived to bring life to the parched rice paddies, to loosen old landmines and to bring corpses to the surface. In the dry season, the land appears solid and predictable. Light brown roads divide slightly darker fields; small clusters of houses at regular intervals nudge up to yellow-roofed pagodas topped by tiny finials.


Nicoletti at the park

The mission must have seemed as clear as the summer skies. Grenades are thrown into a rally in front of hundreds of witnesses in broad daylight. An American is wounded. The local government has pledged to cooperate. The embassy is in full support. Someone is going to talk. What the agents presumably did not know was that they were heading into territory that had entangled many who came before.

Setting up operations in a different hotel every day[n] as a security precaution,[s] they interviewed witnesses in front of Cambodian officials[n]—who promised that the witnesses would not be harmed—and U.S. Embassy staff. The reels of a tape recorder turned slowly, and Myke Taister, one of the bureau’s top forensic facial reconstruction men,[n] sketched away.

Nicoletti and Hoffman quickly focused on Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, which by March 1997 had emerged as a private army of 1500 men, under the de facto control of Hun Sen’s lieutenant, Hing Bun Heang.[n] It was members of Bodyguard Unit 2 who were stationed at the park on the day of the attack, the first time these well-armed special units had been seen at an opposition rally.

Civilian witnesses quickly brought a critical part of the sequence of events into focus. As the grenades exploded, one of Rainsy’s security men looked up from the ground and saw a thick arm stretch out from an orange vest and hurl the final grenade. Rainsy’s man leapt to his feet and chased the thrower west. The thrower was built like a weight lifter, and ran like one.[s]


The escape route

The gap narrowed as the men approached Hun Sen’s bodyguards, lined up across the west side of the park. A witness screamed: “He threw a grenade!” but rather than stopping him, the bodyguards opened their line[s] and then urged the man in the vest to run faster.

As he disappeared into the maze of pathways leading through the temple grounds toward Hun Sen’s compound, the bodyguards closed ranks and leveled their guns at Rainsy’s man. He stopped in his tracks, dumbfounded. A blow from behind knocked him to the ground.

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A Tragedy of No Importance, by Rich Garella and Eric Pape
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