PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Coup leader Hun Sen defended his choice for a new co-premier today, and his military adviser said the regime was trying to persuade opponents to lay down their weapons and join them in the capital.

Cambodia's new strongman also pledged to hold elections on schedule May 23, 1998, the fifth anniversary of the U.N.-organized vote that led to the shaky coalition government his bloody takeover shattered.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting, Hun Sen shrugged off U.S. rejection of his plan to replace Prince Norodom Ranariddh with Ung Huot, foreign minister and a member of the prince's party.

``The main concern for us is to please the Cambodian people,'' Hun Sen said, shaking Ung Huot's hand.

The United States has said it will not recognize Ung Huot as the legitimate new co-premier. However, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was expected to restore humanitarian aid to Cambodia despite congressional calls to eliminate all U.S. help. She must decide by early August, when a 30-day suspension of $41.8 million in U.S. aid expires.

For its part, China edged closer today to recognizing the new regime. Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang urged Cambodians to work out a peaceful solution, saying foreign governments should help but ``Cambodia's sovereignty and independence should be respected.''

Though Hun Sen will share the premiership, he clearly will be the one in charge. Seeking to legitimize his regime, he said democratic procedures will be followed in Ung Huot's appointment, including a National Assembly vote. A two-thirds majority is needed to endorse Ung Huot; remaining members of parliament _ many have fled Phnom Penh _ are unlikely to show dissent.

In the 1993 election, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party finished behind the prince's royalist party. With the strongest leaders of the prince's party dead or in exile, that isn't likely to happen again.

Hun Sen also urged King Norodom Sihanouk, who is undergoing medical treatment in China, to return home to preside over the elections _ another way to legitimize his government after the July 5 coup.

Sihanouk has insisted he will not take the side of his son, Ranariddh, though he has demanded an end to the torture and killing of Hun Sen's opponents.

Outnumbered and outgunned, forces loyal to Ranariddh were retreating across northern Cambodia. They say they are running out of ammunition, but claim they will make a stand at O'Cheak, 30 miles south of the Thai border.

Hun Sen's military adviser, Mol Roeup, said the new regime was discussing an end to hostilities with pro-Ranariddh forces. But another Hun Sen supporter involved in the peace initiative _ Kang Heng, the deputy governor of Siem Reap province _ said there had been no progress.

Kang Heng also said there was still small-scale fighting in the north, with the government having regained considerable territory.

China edged closer Thursday to recognizing Cambodia's coup-installed government, labeling the current political crisis a problem for Cambodians to solve.

Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Khmer Nation Party that was allied with Ranariddh for next year's elections, predicted Wednesday in Bangkok, Thailand, that a long civil war was beginning.

``We will fight back when appropriate, meaning we can choose when and where to hit back,'' Sam Rainsy said. ``For the time being, Hun Sen seems to have the upper hand. But I think a civil war has started in Cambodia.''

In the border town of O'Samach, where any resistance will be based, two provincial governors, three generals and an admiral have taken refuge with 10,000 other people, said Thong Noue, a lawmaker from Ranariddh's party.

Thailand is tightly restricting border crossings. Six members of Sam Rainsy's party reportedly were jailed by Thai border police at Aranyaprathet, across from the Cambodian town of Poipet, for illegally crossing. Sam Rainsy's aides have said 56 party members are stuck in Poipet.

Ranariddh left Cambodia a day before the coup. At least 40 of his supporters have been killed in bloody purges, human-rights groups say.

Human Rights Watch Asia reported that at least six high-ranking officials of Ranariddh's party have been assassinated. About 200 party members have been arrested.

At least six detention centers are holding hundreds of defeated troops and, in some cases, their families. Human-rights observers have not been granted access to the camps.