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Relatives of Kem Ley, anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer" sit inside a gas station after he was shot dead in Phnom Penh July 10, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - An anti-government figure was shot dead in the Cambodian capital on Sunday, at a time of rising political tension between Prime Minister Hun Sen and an opposition hoping to challenge his grip on power in elections as soon as next year.

Kem Ley, the head of a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer" was shot three times in a store at a gas station in Phnom Penh, police said.

"Kem Ley was shot dead," Eng Hy, a spokesman for the National Military Police, told Reuters, but declined to provide further details.

The body lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the store, as hundreds of onlookers stood outside. A water bottle and a cellphone lay nearby, as his pregnant wife, Pou Rachana, wept.

"I don't know what happened, somebody just called me and said that he's shot," Pou Rachana told Reuters. "He's already dead," she added, as investigators kept her away from the body of her husband.

The killing comes during a period of rising political tension between Hun Sen and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which wants to take on the prime minister in local elections in 2017 and a general election in 2018.

A popular political commentator and researcher, Kem Ley was frequently critical of Hun Sen's administration, having most recently commented on a report by anti-corruption pressure group Global Witness.

The report, which accused the prime minister and his family of having amassed $200 million in business interests, has been dismissed as personal propaganda by a government spokesman.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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