Former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith has appeared in court for questioning in the 1994 killing of three Western backpackers.

The aging Sam Bith was escorted under guard into the Phnom Penh municipal court, to face questioning by a prosecutor and judge before being sent to federal prison. He wore a green uniform often worn by high-ranking military officials.

Sam Bith is accused of taking part in the kidnapping and murder of Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slator and French citizen Jean-Michel Braquet.

Investigating Judge Mong Muny Chakriyia told reporters that he read the former commander the charges. He saiud Sam Bith has been sent to Prey Sar Prison, and that he has a lawyer. The judge said Sam Bith did not respond to any of the charges.

Special police escorted the 69-year-old Sam Bith to the prison, where he will be held during a six-month investigation.

The three backpackers were on a train that Khmer Rouge forces ambushed in the coastal province of Kampot. They were held hostage until a botched ransom attempt and a government raid on the area. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave.

Sam Bith was charged in 1999 with kidnapping, illegal detainment, pre-meditated murder, membership in an illegal armed force, destroying state property, and terrorism. One of his subordinates, Nuon Paet, was convicted in 1999 on similar charges in the case.

Sam Bith avoided arrest until Wednesday. Recent news reports revealed he was living openly in a lavish home in northwestern Battambang province. Police arrested him there.

Sam Bith was the deputy to notorious Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok. The Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia in the late 1970s with a harsh communist regime that resulted in the deaths of nearly two million people from starvation, disease, torture or execution.

Sam Bith defected to the government in 1996. He became a two-star general and adviser to the Ministry of Defense, but was later stripped of his rank and removed from his position.