Cambodia rivals seek calm after protest bloodshed

Cambodia's political rivals agreed Monday to seek a peaceful way out of the crisis gripping the kingdom following violent clashes that left one demonstrator dead and several wounded.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for 28 years, met opposition leader Sam Rainsy for nearly five hours at parliament to discuss turmoil sparked by the strongman leader's disputed election win in July.

In a joint statement released afterwards, they said they had agreed on three points -- to heed the king's call for an end to the violence, to set up a mechanism to bring about election reform in the future and to continue negotiations.

The two sides, however, remained at odds over the opposition's demand for the creation of an independent "truth committee" to investigate the July polls, a spokesman for Rainsy's Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Yim Sovann, told reporters.

He said the opposition would continue its three-day mass protest, which is due to run until Tuesday.

But there was still enough time for the two parties to seek a solution before the opening of the parliament scheduled for next Monday, which the opposition has threatened to boycott, he added.

The talks followed violent clashes in the capital Phnom Penh Sunday on the fringes of a mass demonstration that drew an estimated 20,000 opposition supporters demanding an independent probe into the vote.

Security forces fired smoke grenades, tear gas and water cannon at rock-throwing protesters.

The opposition blamed the authorities for the death of a protester who, according to witnesses, was shot in the head.

"The CNRP strongly condemns the cruel violence by police who shot and beat people... causing a youth to die and many injuries and arrests by the authorities," it said in a statement.

Military police spokesman Kheng Tito denied the security forces had fired live ammunition.

"The military police used only batons and shields and police used tear gas. We did not use live rounds," he said late Sunday.

An estimated 8,000 opposition protesters joined a second protest in a park in the capital on Monday to maintain pressure on Hun Sen.

"We voted for the CNRP, but our will has been stolen," Lev Yeng, 57, told AFP.

"I am hopeful we will get our demand. I will not go back home until we get justice."

Hun Sen, 61, has vowed to rule until he is 74.

His government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.

Rainsy, a French-educated former banker, was barred from running in the July elections because his name was removed from the electoral register last year following criminal convictions he contends were politically motivated.

Sunday's violence came despite a rare meeting on Saturday between Rainsy and Hun Sen, hosted by King Norodom Sihamoni, that was later described by the opposition leader as a "first step" towards ending the crisis.

In a statement released on Monday, Sihamoni offered condolences to the families of the dead and injured.

"I would like to appeal to compatriots -- both demonstrators and the authorities -- to stop all violence such as throwing rocks and using weapons that would inflict injuries and death and cause serious danger to our entire nation," he said.

Cambodia expert Carl Thayer, a professor at Australia's University of New South Wales, said the involvement of the king was a "circuit breaker that could save face on both sides".

"Rainsy might be enticed into attending the opening of the National Assembly in return for some minor concessions into looking at electoral reform. Hun Sen's position appears safe at the moment, but he cannot let the security forces lose control," he said.

According to final election results, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won 68 seats in the July polls against 55 for the opposition.

The CNRP has rejected the tally, alleging widespread vote rigging, but so far its efforts to challenge the results have failed and it has few formal options left in its bid to overturn Hun Sen's victory.