PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ In the sharpest confrontation of Prince Norodom Ranariddh's return from exile, hundreds of his supporters and opponents battled with rocks and sticks Wednesday while riot police struggled to keep them apart.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The Associated Press, Ranariddh said he supports efforts by the government to finish off the Khmer Rouge, but said it was his own attempts to do so that led his co-premier, Hun Sen, to oust him in a coup last July.

After nine months of exile, Ranariddh returned to Cambodia on Monday to prepare for July 26 elections, called by Hun Sen in a bid to legitimize his power and restore foreign aid cut off after the coup.

Intermittent clashes erupted throughout the day near the Hotel Le Royal where the prince is staying.

Fearing for his safety, advisers prevented Ranariddh from waving to supporters from the hotel balcony. During the interview with the AP, he urged his backers to remain nonviolent.

``Please don't do any counterdemonstration that would give anyone a pretext to not let me stay longer in our country and stand for election,'' Ranariddh said.

An aide to the prince, Vibol Kong, said later the unrest would not change Ranariddh's plans. He met the ambassadors of Britain, Australia, Germany and China to discuss election preparations.

Ranariddh acknowledged that there are many obstacles to holding free elections: His royalist party has only 14 provincial offices, compared with several thousand party offices belonging to Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party. It has no access to the media, and no helicopters for countryside campaigning.

The main thing needed to ensure that elections are credible is international monitors, he said.

Ranariddh spoke softly about the tense situation in Anlong Veng, the jungle headquarters of the last Khmer Rouge faction. Mutineers rebelled against their leadership last week and, supported by Hun Sen's army, appear to have the last die-hards on the run.

Accepting forces who had been loyal to notorious former guerrilla leader Pol Pot could add one more unstable ingredient to Cambodian politics, the prince said.

``We have to be cautious, but everything bringing lasting peace and national reconciliation I welcome.''

Last June, when Ranariddh was still co-prime minister, his representatives were trying to negotiate a deal for the Anlong Veng guerrillas to lay down their arms and possibly turn over Pol Pot for trial.

Instead, Hun Sen toppled the prince.

Ranariddh has vehemently denied accusations by Hun Sen's camp that he himself had been plotting to seize sole power with the help of the Khmer Rouge.

``I have been accused of bringing in the Khmer Rouge, but I did not and I will not, never,'' Ranariddh said.

Both premiers, battlefield enemies during the 1980s, began inducting former Khmer Rouge guerrillas into their respective armed forces once the revolutionary group began collapsing in 1996.

Last month, under a complicated, Japanese-brokered plan, Ranariddh was convicted of plotting a coup with the Khmer Rouge and of arms smuggling. His father, King Norodom Sihanouk, then pardoned him, enabling him to return to run in the elections.

Hun Sen, mourning his recently deceased mother, has refused to meet with Ranariddh until at least early May.

Hun Sen's accusations against Ranariddh are widely seen as an attempt to discredit his most formidable opponent. Ranariddh won elections sponsored by the United Nations in 1993, but Hun Sen forced his way into a coalition government by threatening civil war.

Outside the prince's hotel Wednesday, hundreds of riot police armed with assault rifles and clubs dispersed a crowd of about 500 of Ranariddh's supporters who confronted about 60 of the prince's opponents.

Hun Sen's authorities have paid or ordered people to protest the arrival of the prince since last weekend.

The protesters carried banners repeating Hun Sen's contention that Ranariddh should pay for $54 million in estimated damages from the July coup _ even though most of the damage was done in fighting and looting by Hun Sen's soldiers.

Ranariddh supporters grabbed the posters and burned them, then were chased away by Hun Sen-controlled riot police. ``Long live Prince Ranariddh!'' some of the supporters shouted.

About 200 Ranariddh opponents fought an equal number of the prince's supporters with rocks and sticks along one of the capital's main streets.

Also Wednesday, a helicopter carrying Western journalists, diplomats and Cambodian soldiers accidentally detonated two land mines while landing at a remote temple that Khmer Rouge defectors had turned over to government troops. Three people were treated for injuries at a hospital and released.