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By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia ordered the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute to stop activities and remove foreign staff on Wednesday in the latest move by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government against American interests ahead of elections next year.
In response to the order against the pro-democracy group and a day after a government threat to close a newspaper founded by an American journalist, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement titled: "Is Cambodia Committed to Democracy?"
Growing anti-Western sentiment from Hun Sen comes amid increasing tension ahead of elections next year in which he is expected to try to extend more than three decades in power.
Cambodia's foreign ministry accused the NDI of operating without registering and said foreign staff had seven days to leave. Authorities were "geared up to take the same measures" against other foreign NGOs which fail to comply with the law, the ministry added.
The NDI says it works with political parties, governments and civic groups to "establish and strengthen democratic institutions." It did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Embassy described the group as impartial and said it had been working in Cambodia since 1992 with major parties including the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
"The decision to shut down the NDI raises a fundamental question: Is the Cambodian government committed to democracy? Share your views below!" the embassy said on its Facebook page.
Of more than 280 comments in English and Khmer, the majority - though far from all - were critical of the decision.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla who is now one of China's closest allies, has ratched up steps against the United States this year from ending joint military exercises to demanding forgiveness of war-era debt from the 1970s.
On Tuesday, he ordered the English-language The Cambodia Daily newspaper to pay taxes accrued over the past decade or face closure. The paper was founded by an American.
He also lashed out at the United States and non-governmental organizations and accused them of funding groups attempting to overthrow his government.
The opposition has accused Hun Sen and his party of a crackdown on critics and last week a U.N. human rights envoy said Cambodia "appeared to be approaching a precipice".
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said the NDI had not been given adequate opportunity to respond to the accusations against it and the order to close was worrying in the context of increasing repression of freedom of expression.
"(It) hints at continued attempts by the ruling party to consolidate power ahead of next year's national elections," group Chair Charles Santiago said.
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia noted that The Cambodia Daily had a history of running stories that have angered the government.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)