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FBI Urges Local Investigation of ‘97 Attack

With its own case closed, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation is encouraging Cambodian police to pick up the trail of at least three suspects who killed 16 people in a deadly grenade attack in 1997.

The FBI was called in to investigate the attack on an opposition rally in Phnom Penh after one American was injured. However, the FBI closed the case in 2005.

“The results of the FBI investigation were presented to the US Department of Justice, who felt that the evidence gathered did not support criminal charges in the United States,” Special Agent Tom Simon told VOA Khmer in a phone interview in January.

“While we take every assault on Americans overseas seriously, the facts of the case and the loss of Cambodian lives indicate that this investigation is best handled by Cambodian authorities, who hopefully have the resources and ground intelligence to determine what occurred that day and bring the perpetrators to justice,” Simon said.

In its own investigation, described in part in a recently declassified report, the FBI identified three suspects and produced nine sketches, though none was arrested.

In recent interviews with the Cambodia Daily, the case agent, Tom Nicoletti, who is now retired, cited difficulties in conducting the investigation, including threats to his security.

“To close that case knowing what the facts are, I think it is criminal,” said Ron Abney, the American wounded in the attack. “I think it is absolutely something that makes me very angry and very frustrated, and I think it’s awful and I think it’s not an honorable and honest thing to do and I really believe that they all should be ashamed of themselves.”

Despite his disappointment, Ron Abney praised Nicolleti as an “honorable” and “very good” detective.

The Cambodian government insists that the investigation remains open, despite having lost track of a suspect, stalling the case.

“We have not closed our investigation,” Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said. “There are no instructions from the government or the ministry to close the case.”

The leader of the rally and likely target of the attack, Sam Rainsy, said he does not believe Cambodian authorities will ever solve the crime and hopes the FBI will reopen the case.

“We cannot allow Cambodian police to conduct the investigation,” the opposition leader said. “Because if they do it properly, they will have to arrest a Cambodian leader who is holding a high position.”