MALAI, Cambodia - Hundreds of relatives and former Khmer Rouge fighters are expected to gather Thursday for the cremation of regime co-founder Ieng Sary, who died last week while on trial for genocide.
The 87-year-old's death cheated Cambodians of a verdict over his role in the hardline communist regime's atrocities and handed another blow to the UN-backed tribunal, which has been blighted by delays and cash shortages.
Grieving in Ieng Sary's hometown of Malai close to the Thai border has illustrated the lingering divide between supporters of the former regime and those who survived its brutality.
"He is a hero for the people of Malai," said former Khmer Rouge fighter Long Run, 78, describing the Khmer Rouge's former foreign minister as a "patriot" who defended the country from Vietnamese invaders.
"I was shocked when I heard he was dead. We're sorry that we lost him now," he told AFP as he paid his respects at Ieng Sary's home in Malai, a small bustling town where former Khmer Rouge cadres sell goods in a local market.
Ieng Sary's body was returned last Thursday to his powerbase in the remote northwestern border area where he held out with fellow Khmer Rouge members after the regime fell from power until his defection in 1996.
Monks have held religious rites each day as part of a week-long funeral, and a crematory has been built outside the family home for the cremation, which is expected to be held at about 6:00 pm (1100 GMT) on Thursday.
Several hundred villagers attended a funeral ceremony on Friday with some crying, according to witnesses, even though Ieng Sary was accused of overseeing purges and the murder of intellectuals as foreign minister.
"Although people from outside this area accused him of genocide, he did good things for the poor people here," said former Khmer Rouge cadre Nhem Preuong, 58.
"I regard him as my parent," he added.
The death of Ieng Sary, one of the regime's few public faces, intensified fears his remaining two elderly fellow defendants may also die before verdicts can be reached at the embattled tribunal.
The one-time radical student was the oldest of three former leaders on trial, along with "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 86, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81.
All have denied charges including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians through starvation, overwork or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
So far the UN-backed court has achieved just one conviction, sentencing former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to life in jail for overseeing the deaths of about 15,000 people.