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Does the US know who it's dealing with in Cambodia?

Absolutely, FBI files show.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is rushed from the scene moments after a grenade attack on a political rally outside the parliament in Phnom Penh, March 30, 1997. Sixteen people were killed and more than 100 were injured in the explosions. (Reuters)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The local police not only failed to cooperate but actively tried to sabotage the FBI's investigation of Cambodia's worst peacetime atrocity.

Key evidence was doctored. Highly placed witnesses stormed out of interviews. Mischievous leaks to the media intensified threats to the FBI agents' safety. And according to the lead FBI investigator, who is now retired, Cambodian and US officials warned him that he was marked for assassination.

So much is written down in newly declassified FBI records from an investigation into the grenade attack on a peaceful opposition rally on March 30, 1997, which killed 16 children, men and women and wounded more than 100 others, including an American man. The FBI's disclosures were made this year under a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2007 by The Cambodia Daily, a local English-language newspaper.

No arrests were ever made. What evidence could be collected in the six weeks the FBI were actively investigating here pointed to forces loyal to the man who is now Cambodia's unchallenged prime minister, to the party and the people who now dominate Cambodia unopposed and with whom the U.S., and the FBI in particular, have since sought warm

Cambodia is a small but eager partner for a United States that seeks other countries to help shoulder the burden of international peacekeeping, engage in counterterrorism efforts and police the world's remoter regions to allow trade and commerce to occur in safety.

Cambodian intelligence sharing, for example, allowed the CIA in 2003 to detain Hambali, the suspected mastermind in the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 people, and one of 16 "high-value" detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay.

But, as the FBI records show, the broader security cooperation begun under the former administration of President George W. Bush with countries in the region — where China can compete for influence with the U.S. — may require a distasteful compromise in the promotion of human rights.

According to one U.S. Senate staffer who was briefed by the FBI in the late 1990s on the Cambodian grenade attack case, the U.S. has a tough decision to make in deciding whether to cooperate with the Cambodians, or any other known human rights abusers in Asia.

"Obviously we want to have accountability. We've been seeking that for more than a decade," the Senate staffer, who requested anonymity, said of the grenade attack.

"Do we then say that, 12 years later, it's inappropriate to have security cooperation with the government of Cambodia? It's a judgment call."

He also cautioned against assumptions that the FBI's evidence had reached an actionable threshold by the time the case was shut down. FBI briefers told Congress that physical evidence was not dispositive and that some witnesses had contradicted each other, he said.

"I don't think that it would be appropriate to withhold security cooperation with the government," he said, noting that while the U.S. remains "deeply concerned" about human rights here, the "basic policy is not to disengage with Cambodia."