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Amid Escalating Political Tensions, Hun Sen Cancels Military Remains Recovery Program

FILE PHOTO - Four U.S. servicemen carry a coffin containing the remains of U.S. servicemen from the Vietnam War era to an American military transport aircraft as U.S. pilots salute during a repatriation ceremony at the Phnom Penh airport Monday, Feb. 16, 1998. The remains discovered early this month have been linked to the crash of a U.S. Huey helicopter which flew into Cambodia with four crewmen on a rescue mission in March 1970 to pick up a special operations team in trouble. They will be brought to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for forensic analysis. (AP Photo/Ou Neakiry)

More than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for as a result of the Vietnam war, with about 48 thought to be missing in Cambodia.

In response to new U.S. visa sanctions on Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Friday Cambodia was suspending its program to recover the remains of U.S. service personnel missing since the Vietnam war.

The U.S. on Wednesday announced visa restrictions on high-ranking officials at the foreign ministry and their families.

“In response, Cambodia is telling the U.S. that co-operation in the search for remains ... will be temporarily suspended,” Hun Sen said on Friday.

He added that the suspension would be lifted when normal relations were resumed.

“If the U.S. does not give us them back [remove the visa sanctions], we will not co-operate with the U.S. over this issue,” he said. “If you do something to me, I will do it back.”

He went on to appeal to the families of the missing not to blame the Cambodian government, calling on them to blame Washington instead.

More than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for as a result of the Vietnam war, with about 48 thought to be missing in Cambodia.

U.S. Ambassador William A. Heidt said the embassy had yet to receive any notification of the decision.

“I don’t know what the wording will be. I just don’t know what they are going to do. You know we value each area of our relationship. We value that cooperation. And if they want to suspend [the program] and if that's what happens, that is unfortunate,” he said.

“Cambodia and the United States have consistently enjoyed very strong cooperation on POW/MIA recovery efforts, which has won Cambodia much gratitude in the U.S. As a result of this cooperation, the United States has been able to identify and repatriate the remains of 42 personnel missing from the Indochina conflict,” Arend Zwartjes, U.S. Embassy spokesman, said in an email on Friday.

Tensions between the U.S. and Cambodia have escalated since the government banned democracy promotion NGO the National Democratic Institute from the country last month and expelled its foreign staff.

Cambodia later accused the United States of being behind an unsubstantiated opposition plot to overthrow the government.

U.S. Ambassador William A. Heidt on Tuesday described the accusations as “baseless”, adding that government officials had “completely, and intentionally, mischaracterized what the United States is doing in Cambodia.”

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, said the U.S. “will likely take further and stronger measures on Cambodia.”

“Actions and reactions will further damage the bilateral ties,” he added.

Elizabeth Becker, a veteran journalist who reported on Cambodia in the 1970s, said: “Hun Sen seems to be pushing the United States in order to portray America as a villain.”

“Hun Sen is trying to draw attention away from his drastic attacks ... against the Cambodian opposition. So he behaves as a tyrant ... and portrays a foreign nation as the enemy,” she added.