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Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister cremated

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March 21, 2013 11:29 AM EST | AP

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The former foreign minister of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Ieng Sary, was cremated Thursday, with about 1,000 people bidding their farewell.

His widow, Ieng Thirith, and many old comrades in the notorious communist movement that ruled Cambodia in 1975-79 attended the ceremony in the western town of Malai, a former stronghold of the group.

Ieng Sary's death from cardiac failure on March 14 at age 87 ended the chance he might be punished for his role in the regime, which oversaw the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution.

He was being tried at the time of his death by a U.N.-backed tribunal on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Two co-defendants remain: former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81, and ex-chief ideologist Nuon Chea, 86. Both are frail and have suffered strokes. The tribunal, which began operating in 2006, has tried and convicted only one defendant, and there are fears these other senior members may die before their trial can be completed.

During its reign of terror, the Khmer Rouge sought to obliterate many aspects of what they considered bourgeois rule, including currency, private property and religion. However, Ieng Sary was given a traditional cremation, with 89 Buddhist monks giving their blessings, attendees said.

Ieng Thirith was the Khmer Rouge's social affairs minister and was another co-defendant, but was ruled unfit to stand trial last year because she suffers from dementia. She wept Thursday as her children escorted her to pay her last respects to her husband.

In 1996, years after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown and retreated to the jungle, Ieng Sary became the first member of its inner circle to defect, bringing thousands of foot soldiers with him and hastening the movement's final disintegration.

Many of his loyalists attended the cremation.

Neak Lorn, 51, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, praised Ieng Sary as a leader who through his surrender brought peace and helped end three decades of civil war.

"I am sad when seeing his body cremated. To me, he was a good leader," said Neak Lorn, who joined the Khmer Rouge when he was 13. "I never saw him killing or ordering executions under the Khmer Rouge."

Ieng Sary had denied any responsibility for the atrocities, claiming he was outside the late Pol Pot's leadership circle. But at a minimum, he was thought to have been aware of and facilitated arrests within his Foreign Ministry.