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Ta Mok pictured this week in Phnom Penh Military Hospital, several days before he died at age 82

Ta Mok, expected to be one of the top suspects and key witnesses in a long-awaited U.N.-assisted Cambodian tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders, died Friday morning, family members and his lawyer said.

The longtime Khmer Rouge military chief of staff was 82 years old, they said. He died at Phnom Penh Military Hospital, where he lived his final two weeks, battling a variety of lingering ailments and diseases, including TB.

Ta Mok was arrested in 1999 in a remote area near the Thai-Cambodian border, following a sting operation by Cambodian government intelligence operatives. He since has been held in a military prison awaiting trial. Prosecutors officially began last month to formally gather evidence and investigate possible suspects. Trial courtroom proceedings are not expected to begin until late next year, at the earliest.

The Khmer Rouge are blamed for the deaths of some 1.7 million people during its rigid and unorthodox 1975-79 communist rule.

Ta Mok died at 4:45 AM Friday at the hospital, where he was transferred recently from military prison after his condition worsened, they said.

Ta Mok's nephew, Mam Mol, mourned the loss of his uncle, saying that when a family member dies, naturally you mourn his loss, but he is old, and according to Buddha's teaching, we all have to die one day.

Ta Mok's death follows by roughly a month the passing of former Khmer Rouge minister of health, Thiounn Thiounn, 86.

Some observers say the two recent deaths indicate an urgency surrounding the tribunal, and that trial proceedings should begin as soon as possible to bring justice to victims and survivors.

Ta Mok died from a number of diseases such as hypertension, a spinal condition, stomach ailments, and urination difficulties, says his lawyer Benson Samay. Other living former Khmer Rouge leaders are also aging.

Ta Mok's body departed Phnom Penh in an ambulance at 12:25 p.m. Friday en route to Anlong Veng, a former battlefield and Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwestern Cambodia, where he lived before his capture. Ta Mok's family members ask military court officials for permission to take his body for a Buddhist funeral ceremony, and buried in Anlong Veng.

NGO leaders said Ta Mok's death removes important evidence. Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang said plenty of evidence exists confirming Ta Mok's central role in the Khmer Rouge as a top general, and that he oversaw brutal killings of Cambodian people during the late 70s rule of the Khmer Rouge, officially known as the Democratic Kampuchea era. Youk Chhang said Ta Mok knows a great deal about the regime, noting he was a former member of the Communist Party Central Committee.

Chan Saveth, investigation office director for local human rights group, Adhoc, said Friday that Ta Mok is not an important political figure but that he likely knew a great deal about Khmer Rouge's political structure. He expressed the opinion that the ongoing tribunal will be negatively affected if Khmer Rouge leaders continue to die. He noted that only one top suspect remains in detention, Duch, the 1970s director of the infamouse Tuol Sleng prison in central Phnom Penh. Thousands of people were jailed, tortured in Tuol Sleng and then murdered on the outskirts of the capital in rice paddy fields that later became known as killing fields.

Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith on Friday dismissed concerns raised by civil society groups, asserting that plenty of evidence exists documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Khieu Kanharith said the trial is very important, not as a matter of ''revenge,'' but as a matter of seeking closure to a sad period where ''Khmers killing their own people.'' He says that the trial represents a way of not leaving a ''blank page in the history book,'' and as setting a positive example of justice and, perhaps, of helping simple people resist future orders from leaders to kill one another.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath declined to elaborate on Ta Mok's death, saying only that Ta Mok was an important source for the former Khmer Rouge leaders' trial.

Several top leaders have died in recent years, avoiding trial, including regional military commander Keo Pok. Other top suspects are living free in Cambodia, such as Nuon Chea, brother number two and ex-parliament president; Khieu Samphan, the former head of state for the regime; and Ieng Sary, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.

The United Nations and Cambodian government plan to spen $56.3 million for the tribunal and until today there have not had any KR leader brought for justice. There is only Duch, also known as Kang Khek Iev, who is in detention awaiting for trial.