Four of them were arrested and were to be executed but Dith Pran managed to persuade the Khmer Rouge captors that the three Westerners were neutral French journalists.

 

He and the three reporters then sought refuge in the French embassy until foreigners sheltering there were asked to surrender their passports.

 

While Schanberg and his fellow journalists were deported, Dith Pran was exiled along with millions of other Cambodians to forced labour camps in the countryside.

 

Dith Pran's story was told in the
1984 film The Killing Fields
Some two million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule, including Dith Pran's father, three brothers and one sister.

 

The Khmer Rouge was finally forced from power in 1979 in the face of a Vietnamese military invasion, but none of the group's leaders have yet been brought to trial.

 

A much-delayed United Nations-backed tribunal is due to begin the trials of five surviving former Khmer Rouge leaders later this year, although there have been concerns that the process could grind to a halt due to a lack of funds.

 

Dith Pran himself only managed to escape to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979 after enduring four years of starvation and torture.

 

"Pran was a special person, a very special person," Schanberg, who was at Dith Pran's bedside in New Jersey until late Saturday, told AFP.

 

"Messages are pouring in from people who met him only once saying that he made a deep impression on them. And he did, on everybody."

 

Dith Pran had worked as a photojournalist at The New York Times since arriving in the US in 1980.

 

'Saving life' 

 

The Khmer Rouge seized power
in Cambodia in 1975 [AP]
"Pran was my brother, that's what we called each other," Schanberg told AFP.

 

"Pran lost his three biological brothers when they were killed by the Khmer Rouge and we bonded when I started working with him."

 

After escaping Cambodia, Dith Pran went on to set up The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, an organisation devoted to educating new generations about genocide in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the past.

 

In 1985, he was appointed a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

 

"Part of my life is saving life. I don't consider myself a politician or a hero. I'm a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices," he once said of his work.

 

"I'm a one-person crusade," he added. "I must speak for those who did not survive and for those who still suffer."